Monday, March 12, 2012

Magnificent Millipedes

Hey ya'll 

The rainy season is always good news for many denizens of the undergrowth. It has been millions of years since the ancestors of our modern day arthropods first ventured onto land and before they had effectively begun to colonize it, many of them only inhabited it temporarily. For many of these early invertebrates, coming no land was simply a means through which they could feed in peace by escaping aquatic predators. Movement on land, as such, was often limited in that the animals typically grazed on moss and algae that grew near the shoreline and returned to the waters before the sun, wind and other elements dried them out.

As time went on however, these mosses and algae began to spread and grew from the shoreline towards the land interior, eventually covering much of the earth. As the plants traveled, so did the invertebrates. For many primitive creatures, movement was primarily a source through which to find food and so as plants diversified, so did the animals that first rose from the seas and from such humble beginnings, the first insects were born. Soon enough, predators started following these herbivores to the surface. They too began to adapt in a multitude of ways. Claws, stings, poisonous fangs. And so, there began an evolutionary arms race which resulted in what is possibly the most diverse of all animals species that we see in the world today. Indeed it is these animals which subsequently grew to be the various insects, arachnids and invertebrates that science has so meticulously classified today.

However, while many of these animals have diversified to the extent that they no longer resemble their ancestral counterparts (flying insects like butterflies, bees and dragonflies for instance are a fairly 'recent' and sophisticated development in insect evolutionary history) some did and continue to retain even the interstitial lifestyles their predecessors led in the past. Stuck, in a mysterious habitat that is always in between worlds, many of these animals can survive nowhere else but in the "twilight zone" that is the undergrowth. Consequently, when the raining season arrives, many of these creatures find their territories suddenly expanded. The sudden increase in moisture, in rotting vegetation and in fungi growth results in new pastures that they can explore and graze, and they generally do sometimes to alarming effect. Take this gigantic creature for instance.

This is a giant rusty millipede (Trigoniulus corallinus) and like any other millipede, it's name comes from the mistaken belief on its total number of legs. The term millipede, you see, comes from the latin words mille and pede literally meaning a thousand feet, and while no single millipede species in the world actually possesses such a copious amount of legs, the actual number of legs most millipedes posses is still rather commendable. Millipedes start out their lives as nymphs, juveniles that look very similar to their parents, which hatch from eggs laid in pockets in the ground and possess as little as only three pairs of legs! As the millipede ages, however, it sheds its outer skin and with each molt grows an additional set of legs. You might imagine, therefore that the total number of legs a particular millipede has can be something of a testament to its survivability in the wild! In the forest ecosystem, millipedes typically fulfill the same functions as earthworms, cockroaches and many other ground dwelling arthropod in that they recycle dead organic material that can be reabsorbed as nutrients into the soil. 

I found these particular millipedes today, on a particularly misty morning as I was making my way to my class. There, nestled among a pile of leaves and debris which had no doubt been washed out of the forest by last night's torrential downpour was a large creature coiled up an almost perfect circle. I made a mental note of it and hurried off to Postcolonial and Diasporic literature. It was to my extreme fortune and delight that the creature was still there even after my class had ended and I wasted no time in collecting it (for I had decided during class that it would make a wonderful addition to my personal collection, not to mention for observation and study). It was through poking about and digging in the soil for several minutes that I managed to find a total of four individuals of varying lengths. This, I thought was a real prize. FOUR MORE BEAUTIFUL MILLIPEDES TO ADD TO MY EVER GROWING FAMILY!!! Could this week leading up to my birthday get any better? 

They have been kept, for now, in a fairly large tank with moist soil and leaves to hide under. I feed them with pretty much the same fruits that I have been giving Paolo and Isabella although, it should be reminded for the amateur millipede breeder/enthusiast that fruits should only ever be used as a supplement and compost/decaying plant matter is always the best sort of staple diet for millipedes as it will ensure they get all the nutrients they need. (ACE Hardware sells pre-mixed compost and soil that is PERFECT for this but make sure you get the untreated ones). If kept properly, Millipedes are really incredibly long lived!!! Which means I'll have more than enough time to observe and learn more about these wonderful giants. Hopefully even breed them someday although I haven't had much luck. I think the soil I'm using isn't the right one.


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