A previously unknown species has been discovered in Los Angeles and Orange County parks.
The animal has 486 legs and a toothy, predatorhead in style. It has the greenish translucency of a toy that glows in the dark in daylight, and weaves through the floor as elegantly as an embroidery needle.
But step away from the microscope and the Los Angeles filament millipede (Illacme social) becomes a lot less intimidating. The width of a thin mechanical pencil lead and the length of a sewing needle, it’s easy to see how this tiny, threadlike section of an invertebrate has gone unnoticed — until now.
With the release late last month of a Paper The Los Angeles thread millipede officially introduces the creature and joins the ranks of about 12,000 other named millipede species worldwide.
The discovery is a tiny reminder of the vast empire of small animals at the base of the world’s ecosystems, a universe of tiny creatures that are in danger of being lost before we can appreciate their essential role.
“These new species are literally right under our feet,” said Derek Hennen, an entomologist at the Virginia Museum of Natural History who was not involved with the study.
“This underscores the importance of preserving these open green spaces and natural habitats as much as possible, because even in a heavily urbanized environment like Los Angeles, you can still find new species in places that people might not even have.” .” I’ve searched before.
The millipede was first sighted in April 2018 at Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park near Lake Forest by naturalists Cedric Lee and James Bailey. Immediately realizing they were on to something unique, the pair posted their find on iNaturalist, the citizen science app.
Across the country, Virginia Tech entomologist Paul E. Marek searched the app and noted their discovery. When Marek and his wife were visiting family in Los Angeles for Christmas, they drove to Whiting Ranch to see if they could find the same animal.
Centipedes are not insects but invertebrate arthropods more closely related to lobsters and crabs. This particular genus is small and slow, bearing a striking resemblance to plant root hairs. After carefully removing the carpet of rocks, dead leaves, and humus, Marek and his wife scanned the ground for anything light, slender, and longer than 20 mm (0.7 in) and waited to see if it wobbled.
The samples found were carefully scooped into plastic vials with some soil and stowed in Marek’s carry-on luggage for the trip back to his lab in Virginia. (“They don’t appear to show up on an X-ray,” he said.)
DNA sequencing and close analysis of the centipede’s physical structures confirmed that it was a new species. Back in California, Lee recorded more sightings of the animal at the Eaton Canyon Natural Area in Pasadena. The article naming the species appeared in ZooKeys magazine late last month; Both Lee and Bailey are co-authors.
Centipedes do the unsexy but essential work to keep the forests from drowning in their dead. They are detrito feeders, breaking down dead plant matter for food and excreting nutrients that seed the soil for future growth.
“I kind of picture them as the little garbage men of the forest,” Marek said. “They just drive around, eat garbage, poop it out, and it becomes dirt.”
Centipedes have been on the planet for about as long as there has been life on Earth. According to the fossil record, they were the first land animals on the planet to breathe oxygen in the air.
They’re important yet incredibly vulnerable little creatures: they don’t sting or bite, and most, including the Los Angeles Thread, are blind. (They actually secrete chemicals that apparently taste gross to birds, larger insects, and other predators, so at least that’s what they have to themselves.)
The discovery of a brand new species in the soil of an ever-expanding urban area underscores how little we know about the tiniest parts of our ecosystem whose habitats could be paved over before we even realize what we’ve lost, entomologists said.
“It’s a celebration of what’s out there and a reminder of what we might lose,” said Brian Brown, curator of entomology at the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum. “We need these little things. You are important.”