The Rush of Discovery

Post by PhD student Jackson Means who is an expert in the taxonomy of Nannaria

Taxonomy, the naming and description of species, can be a tedious and exhausting undertaking. When one does taxonomy there are often long periods of intense focus, frequently while hunched over, staring through a microscope. Each morphological structure must be accurately documented, illustrated and compared to those of other species. DNA must be extracted, sequenced and run through complex phylogenetic analyses. There is a peace and beauty to the process, but to many, the amount of work and tedium would make the whole endeavor unpalatable. However, there is one thing that even the least taxonomically-inclined individual would find rewarding: the white-hot rush of discovery.

Fig. 1: The elusive Oenomaea pulchella (Bollman, 1889)

There exist few feelings as intense and wonderful as finding something that has never been described by science, or rediscovering a species that hasn’t been seen in decades. Oenomaea pulchella, which unfortunately lacks a common name, was one such species.  Last collected in the 70’s by the renowned diplopodologist Rowland Shelley, O. pulchella is believed to be the closest living relative to a genus that we are in the process of revising, Nannaria, and has been something of a white whale for myself and my fellow lab mates for the past two years. Miraculously, this past weekend I found 13 individuals in the small Tennessee town of Bulls Gap. They were under a thin layer of mud in a trash-ridden swamp that I honestly thought was a terrible spot for collecting, but it was a last-ditch effort at the end of a long day. At first I couldn’t believe what I was holding in my hands, at just over 25 mm O. pulchella is not the easiest millipede to identify. But it’s bright coloration made it instantly recognizable as something different than the comparably drab Nannaria (Fig. 2). That rush never gets old, and I feel it every time I find a new Nannaria species, but not since my first new species have I felt that excited. Now on to the next white whale, Rhysodesmus restrans!

Fig. 2: An undescribed species of the genus Nannaria Chamberlin, 1918

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Mediterranean recluse spider

Loxosceles rufescens (Dufour, 1820), the Mediterranean recluse spider

Last month, I found this spider in Seitz Hall on the campus of Virginia Tech where we house the Virginia Tech Insect Collection. At first glance, I thought it was a Brown recluse spider (Loxosceles reclusa Gertsch & Mulaik, 1940), but sent the specimen to Matt Bertone at North Carolina State University, who determined it was the Mediterranean recluse.


The Arthropod Museum in the Department of Entomology at the University of Arkansas has a nice article about the two species and how to tell them apart. The Mediterranean recluse is an introduced spider with origins in the Mediterranean region, but it is well established in many places. Another introduced species of arthropod from the Mediterranean region is the fleet-footed House centipede Scutigera coleoptrata (Linnaeus, 1758). As both are predators, I imagine them battling it out for the delectable cockroaches and silverfish prey running around.

Scutigera coleoptrata (Linnaeus, 1758), the House centipede


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Cedar glade mimic millipede

Cedar glade mimic millipede

This millipede is the species Brachoria cedra Keeton, 1959 from the The Cedars Natural Area Preserve in Lee County, Virginia. The Cedars Preserve is a wonderful limestone glade habitat, and it gets its name from the Eastern redcedar growing in the area (Juniperus virginiana L.). The millipede is officially listed as a state threatened species in the state.

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Checkered beetle

Enoclerus_ichneumoneus_04Enoclerus ichneumoneus (Fabricius, 1776)

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Weird beetle larva

Larva of the Net-winged beetle, Caenia dimidiata (Fabricius, 1801)

This is the larva of Caenia dimidiata, a Net-winged beetle of the family Lycidae. The top image shows the dorsum (back) of the beetle, and the bottom is the venter (underside). The adult beetle has a striking orange and black appearance. Many lycid beetles produce noxious lycidic acid or pyrazine and they warn potential predator of their toxicity through conspicuous coloration (Eisner, 2005). The strange protuberances on either side of its body segments are composed of cuticle and serve an unknown role. The beetle’s head is bizarre and possesses stubby antennae and reduced mouthparts.

  • A high-res version of the beetle image is linked here (9.2 MB).
  • Eisner, T. (2005). For love of insects. Harvard University Press.
  • Thanks to D. Hennen for collecting it, and J. Cicero for identifying the species.
  • There are no images of C. dimidiata larvae online, so feel free to use this one anyway you see fit since it’s in the public domain (CC0)
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