LA's Newest Discovery Is Blind, Has 486 Legs

Meet the Los Angeles thread millipede, found near a Starbucks and a freeway
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Jul 31, 2023 9:20 AM CDT
What's Blind, Glassy, and Has 486 Legs?
A Los Angeles thread millipede is seen at the Marek Lab of Virginia Tech's Department of Entomology in Blacksburg, Virginia. The tiny arthropod is a new species and was found by graduate students at a hiking area in Southern California, near a freeway, a Starbucks, and a sunglasses store.   (Paul Marek via AP)

The City of Angels, a metropolis of freeways and traffic, has a newly discovered species named in its honor: the Los Angeles thread millipede. The tiny arthropod was found just underground by naturalists at a Southern California hiking area—near a freeway, a Starbucks, and an Oakley sunglasses store. About the length of a paper clip but skinny as pencil lead, the creature is translucent and sinuous like a jellyfish tentacle. It burrows 4 inches belowground, secretes unusual chemicals, and is blind, relying on hornlike antennas protruding from its head to find its way. Under a microscope, the millipede with its 486 legs and helmetlike head resembles a creature in a monster film. "It's amazing to think these millipedes are crawling in the inner cracks and crevices between little pieces of rock below our feet in Los Angeles," says entomologist Paul Marek of the Virginia Polytechnic Institute.

The research team was also from West Virginia University and the University of California-Berkeley, reports the AP. Their findings on the species, whose scientific name is Illacme socal, were published June 21 in the journal ZooKeys. "It goes to show that there's this undiscovered planet underground," Marek adds. It joins other millipedes found in the state, including one that until recently held the crown for the most legs of any creature ever recorded—a whopping 750 limbs. Millipedes feed on dead organic material, and without them, people would be "up to our necks" in it, Marek says. "By knowing something about the species that fulfill these really important ecological roles, we can protect them and then the environment that protects us as well," he notes.

iNaturalist, a citizen naturalist app, led Marek to the discovery. Naturalists Cedric Lee and James Bailey posted about the critter they'd found when when they were out collecting slugs at Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park in Orange County four years ago. The team used DNA sequencing and analysis to prove it was indeed a new species. Lee, a doctoral student at UC Berkeley, has discovered and documented 30 centipede species in California. He says microorganisms have been often neglected in the search for new species, but thanks to modern tools available to anyone, citizen science can be a bridge between the natural world and the lab. "We don't know what's completely out there," Lee says. "There's literally undescribed species right under our feet." Scientists estimate 10 million animal species live on Earth, but only 1 million have been discovered.

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"What we don't know is far more than what we know in terms of insect species and small creatures around the world," says Brian Brown, curator of entomology at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. But he worries about threats, such as climate change and invasive species, to native species, noting, "It really is going to take a lot more work and effort to try and save ... the species before they all go extinct." Daniel Gluesenkamp, president of the California Institute for Biodiversity, who wasn't involved in the research, points to this millipede as the perfect example of an unexplored frontier. "We need to be investing in local parks, we need to be saving any little patch of wild land, even if it's surrounded by housing and parking lots," he says. "We need to know what's there so that we can protect it and use it as a solution in the tremendously challenging times ahead."

(Read more discoveries stories.)

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