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Tracking Leaf Litter’s ‘Little Tractors’

Tracking Leaf Litter’s ‘Little Tractors’

This past week I came across an essay in The Conversation by one of our entomology grad students, Derek Hennen. He’d been collecting millipedes in the woods of his native state, Ohio, earlier this summer.  Sometime in the next year, he plans to publish a guide to Ohio’s millipedes. His photos are beautiful — a couple of them are posted here — and he will include his photos in the guide, along with information to help people identify the state’s species.

Ambitious. And, he tells me, that his work in Ohio is not even part of his thesis.

“My thesis work is focused on the endemic leaf litter invertebrates of Arkansas and is funded by a state wildlife grant my advisor, Dr. Ashley Dowling, received,” he told me via email, while taking a break from searching through leaf litter down near Magnolia. “Essentially, I’m looking at bugs that only occur in Arkansas and which are found in leaf litter. The Ozarks and Ouachitas have a lot of really neat endemic species that don’t occur anywhere else.”

It turns out that Arkansas has 10 or 15 more millipede species than Ohio. Almost one-third of the millipede species found in Arkansas are endemic – that is, unique to the state. In his email, Derek offers a glimpse at the perils and rewards of collecting millipedes.

“They’re my favorite group of animals: some release hydrogen cyanide to defend themselves (to us it smells like cherries), others fluoresce under ultraviolet light, and others can grow up to five inches long. They’re chugging away in the leaf litter like little tractors, but not many people know much about them. It’s a real shame! qpp3g96t-1407149468

“When I first moved to Arkansas, I didn’t realize that the Interior Highlands even existed. I’ve been lucky to be able to do my fieldwork in the Ozarks and Ouachitas. It truly is one of the coolest regions in North America, especially the Ouachitas. One surprise has been how many venomous snakes I run into during my collecting. They’re beautiful and a treat to see, but it makes me paranoid since I’m rummaging around in the leaf litter where the snakes are hiding. I’ve become more careful while searching, just in case.

“Probably the biggest surprise is that more people, especially scientists, don’t know about the Interior Highlands and its biodiversity. Arkansas has many unique habitats that haven’t been fully explored yet, which makes it a treasure trove of new discoveries. A lot of people imagine the tropics as the only places worth exploring, but there’s a lot to be found right here.

“I still have a lot of samples to process and data to go through, so I’m sure there’s a lot of cool stuff I don’t even know I have yet. I’ll keep you posted as I sort through it all!”

Thank you, Derek. I’m looking forward to hearing – and seeing – more. In the meantime, I’ll enjoy looking at some of your millipede photos.  And I know I’ll be poking around in the leaf litter in the backyard or on my next hike.

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