Sunday, October 9, 2011

Millipedes on the Move~

A millipede in protective mode~

Over the weekend we were blessed with the most perfect rain… exactly the kind we have so desperately needed. It was gentle and lovely, quiet and welcomed with that unmistakable smell of fresh dampness. The garden has been patiently waiting since last October for this soothing rain; it has been a year since we experienced such a godsend.

This time of year the marvelous magical millipedes appear everywhere. Slow and steady, with their many legs moving in a tandem of perfect synchronization, they are truly an unsung hero of the garden. Their job is to take damp decaying leaves and mulch them into tiny pieces, making their work an ecological boon for the garden.

And they have been mulching away since prehistoric times. Mr. Mike Newman, a bus driver and amateur paleontologist from Aberdeen, Scotland found a fossil of a small millipede in a piece of sandstone. He said, “I had found millipedes there before, but this one had evidence of the holes that showed it actually breathed“. Experts from the National Museum of Scotland and Yale University studied it for months and concluded it lived 428 million years ago, making it the oldest land creature in existence. The millipede was the first to crawl from the sea and breathe air!

The millipede is a member of the arthropod family which account for over eighty percent of all known living species. A nasty cousin of the millipede is the centipede and the roly-poly is also related. The name ‘millipede’ comes from the Latin mille (thousand) and pes (foot) however no species has 1,000 feet; common species can have up to 400 with each segment bearing two pairs of legs.

Besides having wonderful translucent legs, millipedes possess the ability to curl in a fascinating cylindrical circle if disturbed. This habit developed possibly because they do not possess an ability to bite or sting so they are using their hard outer shell to protect their feet! I cannot resist gently poking one and watching it instantly coil and children are always amazed by the trick!

That this little species still exists in the garden today, looking exactly like the ancient fossil, is indeed a phenomenon. If you find one inside, please carry it outside to a damp leafy spot and release it... its ancestors are very important after all.