You may rarely consider the existence of millipedes, or indeed, be asking, “What IS a millipede?” But some of the smallest creatures found through the F3UES project, can potentially have far reaching consequences, even millipedes.
Millipedes, like centipedes are a kind of Myriapod, which literally means they have ‘many legs’. In fact, millipedes have two pairs of legs on most of their many body segments. This is in contrast to a centipede, which only has one pair per segment. They don’t have a million or even a thousand legs, but one American species does have over 750! Millipedes in Britain rarely have more than 180 legs, most have a lot fewer.
During our project to find out the relationship between biodiversity (what range of wildlife is present) and the benefits that this wildlife provides to the local people (Ecosystem Services), we have been looking closely at the creepy crawlies. You may not see them, but the tiny creatures that crawl and fly around our gardens and parks are really important for our health and well-being. Whether they are pollinating crops and flowers, eating pests, breaking down your compost or providing food for birds and generating the sounds of summer, invertebrate animals are a vital part of our lives. The Millipedes are an absolutely essential part of the decomposition process. They chew up tough leaf litter and make it accessible for worms to turn it into soil. An experiment to remove millipedes from a part of a woodland, once showed how the fallen leaves just continued to accumulate. Imagine if every Autumn, the leaves falling from trees just continued to pile up, and up, and up. It’s the millipedes and other over- looked invertebrates that are recycling this waste and capturing the valuable nutrients back into the soil.
Because of their small size, these animals may not be familiar, but they are by no means unworthy of attention. Millipedes, woodlice, springtails, slugs, mites, flies and beetles are all involved in breaking down dead plant material into smaller pieces that can be further broken down by other animals, bacteria and fungi. The millipedes are quite diverse, but usually well armoured and designed to bulldoze their way through soil and leaves with their multitude of powerful legs. The centipedes, which are carnivorous are built more for speed and agility and their legs are good for chasing down and holding prey. The millipedes can be pill-like and roll into a ball, snake-like and coil into a spiral, or flat-backed, with a low, flat profile for pushing between leaves. The bristly millipede (Polyxenus lagurus), however, is very different. It is almost soft-bodied and covered in bunches of greenish plumes with a reflective brush of bristles at the tail.
The bristly millipede is quite an uncommon beast, so, when sorting through we were pleased to find a single specimen among our samples. They are a small and rarely observed species, usually found under bark or building render. They can also be found on beaches and are even known from the Sahara desert! Our specimen was found in leaf litter in the unlikely location of a wooded traffic roundabout in Milton Keynes. This is the first time this species has been recorded in Milton Keynes (and possibly the first time in the world on a roundabout!) There are no other records for this species in the Beds/Bucks region in the last 20 years. This information has been passed on to the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology via the national millipede recording scheme. www.bmig.org.uk
This highlights one of the incidental benefits of the F3UES project. Although we are gathering our biodiversity data for very specific research aims, the same data can have much wider applications. Such a rich and unique set of environmental data and specimens can make an invaluable contribution to biological recording schemes. Our data and specimens are particularly interesting as they include many quite obscure and under-recorded groups, for which there may be very few local records. In addition to the kinds of questions we’re asking of this data in relation to ecosystem services, urban functions and flows, etc, this kind of data can generate baseline ecological information for other regional amateur, professional and academic studies. By being made available to local records centres and agencies, it can impact local species distribution studies, planning applications, regional environmental plans & conservation strategies. Providing data through this route it could also provide information to ecological consultants for environmental impact assessments, contribute significant information for producing national species atlases and demonstrate distribution changes, expansions & declines. By relating the species data to our other environmental and geographical information there is scope to demonstrate climate related movements and identify habitat, species and climate associations. The records may highlight new additions to the local fauna as well as identify the arrival of invasive species. Above all, the data and specimens capture a snapshot in time that can never be replicated, but can always be referred back to. Access to such data may make the difference between saving a green space, protecting an endangered species, building a car park or re-routing a motorway.
So one unique little millipede highlights the tip of an iceberg of impact derived from the potential value of the data gathered through this project; One small animal, representing something like half a million other small invertebrate records. We might just be picking up creepy crawlies from a traffic island to understand some ecological mechanisms, but ultimately we are contributing to a much wider dataset that has potential impacts for years to come.