The stone centipede

In late March I went to the Lakeshore Preserve, on a quest for spring ephemerals. Despite the warm air, the trails still had a layer of snow on them, and though new shoots were poking their way up through the leaf-litter, nothing was in bloom and little living was to be seen out in the open.

But in the shelter of fallen and decaying trees there were definitely signs of activity. In particular, curled on the underside of a loose sheet of bark propped against a log was this splendid – and very calm – stone centipede (order Lithobiomorpha, class Chilopoda – the centipedes – and sub-phylum Myriapoda, the centipedes and millipedes):
Stone centipede, Lakeshore Preserve

The order takes its name from the genus Lithobius, a classification due to William Elford Leach, FRS, assistant keeper of the British Museum’s natural history department in the early 19th century. Leach’s Wikipedia biography states delicately “Leach’s nomenclature was a little eccentric”. The linked article gives a little more detail:

A Leach legend arose about a beloved Caroline (wife, sister, or friend?) who was immortalized in the mostly acronymic isopod genera Anilocra, Canolira, Cirolana, Conilera, Nelocira, Nerocila, Olencira, and Rocinela.

In the first episode of the rebooted Cosmos, you may recall seeing Tiktaalik, the renowned intermediate between fish and tetrapods, crawling up out of the surf at Neil deGrasse Tyson’s feet. Another scientific Neil – Neil Shubin – led the team that found Tiktaalik after several arduous expeditions to Ellesmere Island in the Canadian Arctic; the Inuktitut name pays a courtesy to the team’s Inuit hosts. As it happens, this Neil can also be seen on television, in a three-part adaptation of his book Your Inner Fish, on PBS; and you can stream it, if like me you don’t have actual television. As with Cosmos, by the bye, I can’t guarantee that the network is going to leave those streamable episodes up, so, apologies if you arrive here and they’re already gone. It’s great stuff, though, so if that’s the case I’d still urge you to seek out a DVD or find it on Netflix or Amazon or wherever it happens to land.

Tiktaalik is pretty ancient; but when that first Tiktaalik stuck its head out of shallow water to have a look at the land, it might well have seen a myriapod already quite at home. By that time, myriapods had already been on the land for some fifty million years; nearly as much time as separates us from the end of the dinosaurs. In fact, the oldest known fossil of a land animal is a myriapod, found in Scotland ten years ago by bus driver and amateur palaeontologist Mike Newman.

They’ve lived on the land through all but one of the great extinctions, without needing to change too radically in form or habits of life. That’s worth taking your hat off to.


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