Australian scientists have discovered a new species of centipede that lives 200 feet underground, has no eyes and roams on 1,306 legs.
They named him Eumilipes persephone after Persephone, the Greek goddess and queen of the underworld. But this new invertebrate deserves a crown for another reason: it has the most legs of any creature on Earth, living or dead.
In fact, the competition is not even tight. The largest specimen of the new species, a female, was less than four inches long, but easily broke the previous world record holder, Illacme plenipi a centipede that lives near Silicon Valley, California, and has 750 legs.
It means that E. persephone is the first true centipede in the world, since the word centipede means “thousand feet” in Latin, according to a new study published on December 16 in the journal Scientific reports.
While the new animal’s number of legs is unprecedented, that may not even be the limit of what’s possible. (Read about the discovery of a brilliant centipede.)
Many species of centipedes start their lives with just eight legs, but as they shed their skin and add new body segments, or rings, they may continue to develop more legs, the study leader explains. Paul Marek, millipede expert at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.
âSo there’s probably an individual with more rings and more legs, and it’s a little hard for me to figure out,â says Marek.
In 2020, Marek’s colleagues, led by Bruno Buzatto from Macquarie University in Australia, traveled to the Goldfields region of Western Australia to search for centipedes and other underground creatures.
This region is known for its rich deposits of gold and nickel, which mining companies identify by digging exploration holes deep in the earth. Each hole is less than six inches wide: just large enough to lower a trap that catches the tiny creatures that manage to exist in such places. (Read about ancient giant centipede fossils found in Canada.)
These traps – a length of PVC pipe stuffed with wet vegetation and tied to a nylon rope – can be left underground for months. Meanwhile, underground dwellers like centipedes are drawn to the delicious decaying plants and get stuck inside.
This is how the team found E. persephone. Back in his Virginia lab, Marek unrolled the specimen, then took high-resolution microscopic images of his body. In these images, he digitally marked the sections of the animal’s body in increments of 10, a strategy to ensure that he did not double-count the paws. The final tally revealed 1,306 individual members.
So why all the legs? The team suspects they are allowing E. persephone walk on eight different planes simultaneously.
âBecause this is an underground microhabitat with rocks, pebbles and dirt, they basically go around these obstacles,â says Marek, who received funding from the National Science Foundation.
âPart of your body may be upside down. The other part could be facing down, the other part could be facing up. And it’s all based on wrapping around that kind of three-dimensional matrix, âhe says.
It is likely that the ancestors of the centipede were once widespread on or near the surface, but an increasingly drier climate pushed them further underground, he added.
Hidden from the sun, the creatures have evolved to become colorless, a trait shared by many cave-adapted species. Centipedes appear to have evolved with cone-shaped heads, massive antennae, and powerful worm-like locomotion that allows them to traverse sediment and other tight spaces.
An unknown world under our feet
âA new species is always exciting whether you discover it or not,â says Bruce Snyder, soil ecologist at Georgia College and State University. âBut when it comes to the centipede community, we’re constantly finding new species. “
Yet the fact that E. persephone has nearly twice as many legs as the next largest centipede is “amazing,” says Snyder, who was not involved in the research.
Snyder says it’s probably even more scientifically interesting that the new species comes from an entirely different taxonomic group from the previous record holder, L. plenipids. This suggests that the extreme multi-legged is independently evolving as a successful adaptation to underground life. (See a centipede swarming video in Senegal.)
The depth of E. persephoneThe kingdom of is also surprising.
âI often get the question: how far do they go? Snyder said. “It’s way deeper than I thought we would find a lot of anything.”
In general, the underworld is vastly under-studied, which makes it difficult to know how widely this species and its relatives can be.
âThis shows that despite over 200 years of exploration,â Marek adds, âthese unexplored ecosystems still existâ.