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Largest-ever millipede fossil discovered in northern England

Fossilized section of the giant millipede found in northern England.
(Neil Davies)
Fossilized section of the giant millipede found in northern England. (Neil Davies)

A bug of monstrous size once roamed the Earth.

Scientists discovered the fossilized remains of an 8-foot-long millipede – larger than any ever found before — on a beach in northern England.

Neil Davies, a lecturer in sedimentary geology at the University of Cambridge, says this type of organism has been found only three times worldwide and this discovery marks the largest one.

“People knew that there were animals of this size around because there’s quite a good record of their trackways, of their footprints,” he says. “But no one had ever found the kind of culprit behind it, at least not a really large articulated version of that.”

That’s because larger fossils with many parts often break down into smaller pieces, he says.

“The record of these beasts is quite good from individual legs and tiny little fragments of their exoskeleton,” Davies says. “But to find such very large articulated pieces all linked together is very rare.”

Most millipedes have hundreds of legs, but Davies estimates these creatures had 32 or 64 legs based on its 32 body segments.

The rocks where the specimen was found predate the spike in atmospheric oxygen that scientists thought made it possible for massive instincts and invertebrates to exist, he says.

“It suggests that actually, it wasn’t oxygen that was the cause of their gigantism,” he says, “and rather something else, something more environmental like the availability of food and the lack of competition.”

Scientists don’t know what these millipedes ate because they’ve yet to find a preserved head. The area has a lot of vegetation, Davies says, and the potentially predatory creatures could have hunted small frog-like early amphibians known as tetrapods.

Giant millipedes roamed the Earth much earlier than dinosaurs during the Carboniferous Period between 346 million and 295 million years ago.

“There’s lots of trees and lots of vegetation,” Davies says. “But at the time this thing was living, it was the kind of elephant to this day, the largest animal to be walking on land.”

And when folks find out about this creepy crawler, he gets mixed reactions.

“People are either repulsed by or excited by it,” he says.

Lynn Menegon produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Chris BentleyAllison Hagan adapted it for the web. 

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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