Terraformer millipede

This millipede is Narceus americanus (Palisot de Beauvois, 1817) that I found curled up in the trunk of a live tree. At night, N. americanus is known to climb trees and graze on algae and fungus adhering to the surface of the bark. Their contribution to decomposition and nutrient cycling is quite spectacular.

Many millipedes, especially individuals of the species N. americanus, are voracious detritivores and feed on decaying leaves, wood, bark and other decomposing vegetation. Millipedes provide a really important ecosystem service by fragmenting decaying vegetation thus increasing surface area for colonization by microorganisms (e.g., bacteria and fungus). These microbes complete the process of decomposition and free up nutrients for future generations of life to use.

Based on careful natural history observations, Frederick Coville, former chief botanist of the USDA who studied a population of Narceus americanus from Plummers Island, described the astounding composting abilities of these diminutive animals. He and Herbert Barber, a beetle expert at the Smithsonian, discovered 1000 individual N. americanus while searching a 1000 sq-ft surface of the island at night. On another occasion, they found 320 individuals in a 80 sq-ft area by carefully sifting through the fallen leaves and detritus of the forest.

Coville found that each N. americanus produces about a half cubic centimeter of excrement a day. That’s about an M&M’s worth of feces, which equates to nutrient rich compost for the forest. By measuring the amount of excrement that N. americanus produced each day, easily counted because they’re excreted as firm oval pellets, Coville estimated that they contribute more than 2 tons of compost (about 2 small automobiles worth!) to an acre of the forest each year. Quite a spectacular contribution, considering it’s coming from just one species in the forest.

Coville, F.V. (1913) The formation of leafmold. Journal of the Washington Academy of Sciences. 3: 77-89.*

*In the article, Narceus americanus is referred to as Spirobolus marginatus, which is an old name for the same species. (Article contributed by MBLWHOI through Biodiversity Heritage Library.)

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Fieldwork at La Selva, Costa Rica

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In search of millipedes, we’re dismantling this fantastically rotten log in La Selva, Costa Rica [left to right: Petra Sierwald, curator at the Field Museum; Jackson Means, grad student in the lab; Jason Bond, professor at Auburn University; Paul Marek, PI in the lab; Carlos Viquez, curator at the National Biodiversity Institute, INBio, Costa Rica] Photo by Bill Shear, professor at Hamden-Sydney College.

The decaying log held scores of millipedes, including sphaeriodesmids, siphonophorids, pyrgodesmids, spirostreptids, chelodesmids, polyxenids, and glomeridesmids.

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Bill and Jackson with a portion of the millipede collection at Instituto Nacional de Biodiversidad, INBio. (Jackson is hatching up a plan to bring a 20 gallon bucket of unsorted Berlese samples back to Blacksburg with him.)

INBio is a national institute (funded privately) dedicated to making an inventory of Costa Rica’s natural heritage, promoting conservation and education, and identifying biological and chemical properties of plants and animals potentially useful for pharmaceuticals, industry, biomimicry, and other applications.

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Fieldwork in Costa Rica

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Sphaeriodesmid millipede from La Selva, Costa Rica (collected by J. Means)

Last week, Jackson Means and I were in Costa Rica collecting material for an NSF project. Overall the trip was successful and we collected lots of fresh material for RNA extraction and whole-body transcriptome sequencing. These data will be used to infer a phylogeny of millipedes, a group with ancient evolutionary relationships extending back at least 500 millions years ago!

The millipede pictured above is a member of the order Polydesmida (family Sphaeriodesmidae) that defends itself from predators by rolling up into a ball. This ability to roll into a protective ball, known as “volvation”, has evolved 4-5 times independently across the evolutionary tree of millipedes.

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When disturbed, Sphaeriodesmus tucks and rolls into a ball.

(Canon EOS 6D, MP-E 65 mm lens, 1x, 1/60s, f8.0)

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Myriapodologica, now online


With kind permission from the Virginia Museum of Natural History (Martinsville, Virginia) and special thanks to Tim McCoy for digitizing, we are proud to announce that the journal Myriapodologica is now available online and open access. Published from 1978 – 2008 by editor Richard Hoffman from the VMNH, Myriapodologica was a scientific journal devoted to the study of myriapods.

We’re working on scanning and OCR-ing the remaining issues, so stay tuned to download such classics as “Zoological results of the British Speleological Expedition to Papua New Guinea, 1975. A note on the characters and status of the genus Caloma Chamberlin, 1945 (Polydesmida: Paradoxosomatidae)” and “Ectopotremia: A new genus of prepodesmine millipeds from Mali (Polydesmida: Chelodesmidae)”!

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Snail-eating fly

The fly Poecilographa decora (Loew, 1864), a species of the molluscivorous dipteran family Sciomyzidae. One of two specimens in the Virginia Tech Insect Collection (collected by T. Bailey from Montgomery Co., Virginia, 1975).

Most species of the fly family Sciomyzidae, including P. decora, feed exclusively on non-operculate snails, slugs and clams. However, very little is known about the natural history of these enigmatic flies. For more details about this species and others, join Joe Keiper, an entomologist and fly expert at the VMNH, and other entomologists including scientists from Virginia Tech tomorrow at BugDaze at the Virginia Museum of Natural History (Martinsville, VA).

(Canon 6D, 65 mm lens, 3x, 1/60s, f5.6 – stack of 22 images)

  • Berg, C.O. (1953) Sciomyzid larvae (Diptera) that feed on snails. The Journal of parasitology, 39(6): 630-636. [http://www.jstor.org/stable/3274083]
  • Berg, C.O., & Knutson, L. (1978). Biology and systematics of the Sciomyzidae. Annual Review of Entomology, 23(1): 239-258. [DOI: 10.1146/annurev.en.23.010178.001323]
  • Barnes, J.K. (1988) Notes on the biology and immature stages of Poecilographa decora (Loew) (Diptera: Sciomyzidae). Proceedings of the Entomological Society of Washington, 90(4): 474-479. [http://biodiversitylibrary.org/page/16144900]


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millipede from Blacksburg, VA

Appalachioria separanda calcaria (Blacksburg, VA)

Here’s a local cyanide-producing millipede from near Virginia Tech’s campus. In 1959, William Keeton (then a student at VT) described this species based on specimens   collected from Blacksburg, Riner and Radford, Virginia. This species is endemic to just a few spots in SW Virginia and S West Virginia, which are the only places in the world where this millipede occurs. (Thanks to Jamie Wahls, a graduate student in the Entomology Department, for sharing his discovery.)

Photo by P. Marek and T. McCoy (Canon 6D, 50 mm lens, 1/60 s, 5.6 f)

Keeton, W. T. (1959). A revision of the milliped genus Brachoria (Polydesmida: Xystodesmidae). Proceedings of the United States National Museum, 109: 1-58.

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Armored scale

Gloomy scale (Melanaspis tenebricosa), an armored scale in the family Diaspididae

Eric Day, Insect ID Lab Manager @ Virginia Tech, kindly shared these wonderful gloomy scales with us one day during Insect Biology Lab. This picture shows two female scales (top-center) with their protective covers removed. The scale insects are the pink round things, and you can see their hardened pygidial (tail) region on their right. The scales in this stage really don’t have legs, eyes or antennae.

Gloomy scale pried from its feeding spot

In this image, the female scale is on its side (tail on the right), and you can see its very long thread-like mouthparts that are used like a straw to drink the juices of the tree.

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Tiny scelionid wasp

Parasitic wasp in the family Scelionidae (Telenomus Gryon sp.) Thanks István!  😉

James Wilson, graduate student here in the Department of Entomology at Virginia Tech working in Tom Kuhar’s Vegetable Entomology Lab, recently visited our lab with some of his parasitic wasps. This is an image of an unidentified species of Telenomus Gryon reared from stink bug eggs that we captured with our new microphotography system. It’s a tiny little thing, about 1 mm long!
(Canon 6D, 65 mm lens, 4x, 1/125s, f5.6 – stack of 10 images)

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Cyanide gland dissections

millipede cyanide gland
Cyanide gland, expertly dissected from Pachydesmus crassicutis by Tim McCoy. The large balloon shaped reservoir on the left stores the stable precursor mandelonitrile, which is squeezed into the thickened, oval-shaped reaction chamber on the right. In the reaction chamber, mandelonitrile reacts with an enzyme to produce cyanide and benzaldehyde. The noxious cocktail is finally exuded from the “ozopore” opening to the environment (tubular projection shown on the right). This structure is located internally with the precursor reservoir facing mediad (towards the heart & nerve cord) and reaction chamber oriented laterad (towards the face of a marauding predator).

Reference: Eisner, T., H.E. Eisner, J.J. Hurst, F.C. Kafatos, J. Meinwald. 1963. Cyanogenic glandular apparatus of a millipede. Science, 139, 1218-1220.

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New lab @ Virginia Tech!

Apheloria virginiensis corrugata
Brush Mountain (Montgomery County, VA)
This particular millipede oozes cyanide to deter predators

Just a few months ago, I moved to the mountains of Appalachia and beautiful Blacksburg, Virginia to start research and teaching at Virginia Tech in the Department of Entomology. Over the past few months, I’ve been teaching Insect Biology and building a new laboratory devoted to the discovery and description of new species and the evolution of bioluminescence. In the coming months, we will launch several new research projects studying the origins of luminescence in millipedes and biodiversity of arthropods in the Appalachian Mountains. Feel free to stop by the lab and visit!

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