The Science of Sustainability

Millipede Mystery: A New Fluorescent Subspecies on Alcatraz?

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A periodic nighttime census for rats on Alcatraz Island took an unexpected twist in February when surveyors from the National Park Service and UC Davis discovered glowing millipedes on the island.

To identify rats, National Park Service staff routinely place bait in feeding stations. The bait is laced with a non-toxic fluorescent dye that ends up in urine stains and feces. Surveyors later scan the grounds at nighttime with black light. The more glowing they observe, the larger they extrapolate the rat population to be.

A recent February search turned up no evidence of rats. Instead, surveyors were surprised to discover millipedes glowing intensely white. To ensure that the millipedes hadn’t munched on the fluorescent rat bait, a researcher at UC Davis cast a black light over a collection case at the university’s Bohart Museum of Entomology. Preserved millipedes from the same scientific family fluoresced in the case as well.

Some millipedes species are known to fluoresce under black light [VIDEO], but National Park Service officials say it is the first recorded evidence of such millipedes on Alcatraz. UC Davis entomologists are hard at work determining whether the millipede is a known subspecies of Xystocheir dissecta (Wood) the species commonly found around San Francisco Bay.

The millipedes found on Alcatraz Island as they appear in regular daylight.

Alcatraz Island is far enough from the mainland for a new species to evolve, though it would take millennia for that to happen.

New subspecies or not, California is known for being the only place in the world with bioluminescent millipedes. Seven species of the species Mytoxia Chamberlain 1940 — found in Tulare, Kern and Los Angeles counties — emit light from their bodies like a firefly or glowworm, though Mytoxia as their name implies, do so specifically to warn predators of their toxicity. Their entire bodies, antennas, legs and all light up with a seemingly inexhaustible neon-white glow that is "fantastic to watch" say officials from Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park.

But the fluorescence of the millipedes on Alcatraz is of a completely different sort most commonly observed in scorpions, which glow bright teal under black light.

UC Davis researchers expect to identify the subspecies of the Alcatraz millipede within the next few months.

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Category: Biology

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Thibault Worth

About the Author ()

Thibault got his start in public radio hosting Morning Edition for member station WFDD in Winston-Salem. Sleep-deprived and eager to learn a new language, he left the North Carolina Piedmont for Taiwan in 2007 where he spent several years reporting on cross-Strait issues for NPR, the Financial Times, and Billboard Magazine. He also repeated low-intermediate Mandarin classes more times than he’d care to admit. After a few years in Asia, Thibault headed to France, where (fortunately) he already spoke the local language. He worked for the international broadcaster France24 as an expert guest and multimedia producer. Now happily married, Thibault is glad to find himself reporting for QUEST and Climate Watch, where he is finally putting his biology degree from Brown University to good use.
  • Hhackett

    I am located in Modesto, California In the last several weeks I have been finding luminescent millipedes in my home. The length is 1 1/2 to 2 inches and about 1/8inch in dia. Since they glow my wife finds them easily at night with the lights out. We find them also during daylight hours. They are a shiny dark brown and crawl quickly.
    To my knowledge we have not had them before this year. We did extensive remodeling the previous 2 years and wonder if they may have been brought into the house on materials that were used.

    also wondering where they live, breed, feed, etc.

    Thanks for any ideas

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