Discovering new species of millipedes right here in Appalachia
By Amy Loeffler
The refrigerator in Paul Marek’s boyhood home contained the usual comestibles of the average family — a gallon of milk, assorted vegetables, and meats.
And bugs Marek stored in the freezer.
“I’ve always had a collector’s itch,” said Marek, an assistant professor of entomology. “As a kid I would always collect rocks and feathers and bugs.”
“Millipedes are really ancient creatures. They retain these primitive characteristics, and they’re representative of a lineage that has been on the planet for hundreds of millions of years.”
His boyhood obsession with collecting artifacts of the natural world has translated into a career as a preeminent diplopodologist — a millipede scientist. Today, his lab on the Virginia Tech campus is ground zero for millipede research and is the only functioning millipede lab in the United States.
Marek has identified 10 new species of what may be 200 yet-to-be-discovered species of millipedes that inhabit the decaying leaves in the mountains of Appalachia. And there is room for much more research in the field.
Marek estimates that only 10,000 millipedes have been identified and catalogued globally, but another 100,000 that have yet to be seen by human eyes likely exist under brush, in arid foothills, and in humid tropical forests.
“We’re sending probes out to Mars to explore the galaxy for other signs of life. But we can go out here and find new species of beings as close as Montgomery County,” he said.
He has more than 100 newly discovered millipedes in his lab waiting to be named and classified.
Incidentally, Marek points out, millipedes do not have 1 ,000 legs as the Latin etymology suggests. The most legs that have been identified on a millipede are 750 — and Marek himself is responsible for rediscovering that creature. It had last been seen in 1928 and was thought to be extinct.
“Millipedes are really ancient creatures,” said Marek. “They retain these primitive characteristics, and they’re representative of a lineage that has been on the planet for hundreds of millions of years.”