THE MAN AND HIS MILLIPEDES
The Buffalo Mountain Natural Area Preserve in southeastern Floyd County is a biological hot spot in Virginia. This 1,000 acre preserve, managed by the Department of Conservation and Recreation’s Natural Heritage Program, boasts six natural communities and supports a plethora of organisms. The mountain summit and its glades are home to at least 17 rare plant and invertebrate species.
In September of 2007, I paid a visit, along with my colleague Anne Chazal, to the northern flank of Buffalo Mountain to look for invertebrates. In spite of cool and dry conditions, our searches revealed several species of millipeds in and under some rotten logs.
Of the estimated 12,000 of millipeds known worldwide just over 900 species live in the the United States and Canada. About 200 species are found in Virginia, nearly half of which have never been formally described and catalogued by scientists.
The study of millipeds has long been undervalued and underfunded by government and private agencies because millipeds do not destroy crops or spread disease. However, their habits, defensive behaviors, distributions, and critical role as forest decomposers make millipeds ideal subjects for scientists studying biodiversity, evolution, biogeography, and forest ecology.
Most millipeds eat rotting vegetation rather than living plant tissue. Like earthworms, they ingest soil and extract organic materials for nutrition. The bits of leaves and other plant materials that make up their fecal pellets provide ample surface area for fungi and bacteria to become established and speed up the decomposition of plant materials.
Typically slow and usually unable to bite, pinch, or sting, millipeds are hardly defenseless. Their hardened exoskeleton affords them some protection, especially those species that coil up their bodies to protect their vulnerable underbellies.
When attacked, many millipeds exude mildly fruity to downright smelly fluids from pores located along the sides of their bodies. This chemical cocktail contains repellent compounds that are sometimes toxic to small soil-dwelling animals, as well as effective antifungal agents.
Identifying millipedes can be difficult. Fortunately, one of the world’s leading experts on millipedes works just down the road at the Virginia Museum of Natural History in Martinsville. Anne and I carefully bagged up our many-legged catch, along with some cool and moist bits of punky wood, moss, dead leaves, and lichens, and headed east on Highway 58.
We arrived to find Dr. Richard L. Hoffman in his lab surrounded by jars and vials of preserved specimens, most of which were millipeds. Thanks to his efforts, the museum houses one of the world’s largest and most important milliped collections.
Dr. Hoffman recognized the first two Buffalo Mountain species immediately, while another two required a brief inspection through a binocular microscope before their identities could be confirmed.
His seminal work on the classification of millipeds nearly 30 years ago set the standard for scientists studying these endlessly fascinating animals. Dr. Hoffman has also made substantial contributions to our knowledge of reptiles, amphibians, and numerous groups of invertebrates in Virginia, especially beetles and true bugs.
Just a week after our visit, Dr. Hoffman was feted with a reception, milliped symposium, and banquet hosted at the Virginia Museum of Natural History in celebration of his eightieth birthday and his lifelong scientific achievements.
The list of scientists, students, and other well-wishers at the fete read like a “Who’s Who” of North American milliped workers and field zoologists, several of whom specifically attributed their choice of career paths to Dr. Hoffman’s influence, support, and guidance.
Dr. Hoffman ascribes his success over the years to a combination of factors, including supportive parents, growing up in a place of incredible natural beauty, freedom to explore nature as a youth, being in the right place at the right time, and the continual support of family, friends, and colleagues.
Showing no signs of slowing down even after his recent retirement, Dr. Hoffman is still collecting, writing, and mentoring. Ever curious and insightful, he continues to enlighten and inspire all those who have had the pleasure and good fortune to know him, this writer included.
My thanks to Chris Wirth for the image of me and Richard Hoffman.
©2009, A.V. Evans