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Rare Millipede Species Found in Calif.

June 7, 2006

LOS ANGELES — The world’s leggiest creature is missing-in-action no more. A scientist found a rare species of millipede, last seen 80 years ago in central California, and has collected several of the inch-long bugs for study.

This millipede has more than 600 legs, about twice the average millipede – despite the name which means “thousand-legged.” Of the estimated 10,000 species, only one, I. plenipes, comes close to living up to its name and thrives only in California.

“This is a milestone find,” said Richard Hoffman, a millipede expert at the Virginia Museum of Natural History who had no connection with the discovery.

I. plenipes was first spied in 1926 in San Benito County, about 120 miles southeast of San Francisco, by a government scientist who counted up to a record 750 legs.

But it wasn’t seen again despite decades of searching by many scientists. Until last fall. A 28-year-old scientist from East Carolina University, Paul Marek, and his brother chanced upon it. They were exploring a lush valley of oak trees in San Benito County, known as a biodiversity hot spot.

“I practically fell over when I found it. It was extremely exhilarating,” said Marek, who published the discovery in Thursday’s issue of the journal Nature.

Millipedes thrive around the world in temperate and tropical zones. They feed on plant material and tend to hide under moist soil, wood piles and rocks.

Marek isn’t giving the exact location of I. plenipes for fear of people disrupting the ecosystem. Over three days in the valley, he and his brother collected a dozen millipedes and painstakingly counted their legs under a microscope to confirm that they were part of the same species. Of those captured, the leggiest were the females, with 662 to 666 legs.

The millipedes were brought back to Marek’s lab in North Carolina where some were preserved for future DNA testing and others were shipped out to the Field Museum in Chicago for study.

Darrell Ubick, an entomologist with the San Francisco-based California Academy of Sciences who unsuccessfully hunted for the millipede years ago, applauded the discovery.

“By rediscovering it, we add more pieces of the puzzle to understanding it,” he said.

On the Net:

Nature journal: http://www.nature.com