Rare 666-Legged Millipede Spotted in California

The world's leggiest animal, about an inch long, has been sighted in a remote part of California decades after it was first discovered.

The recent rediscovery of the rare millipede species, with more than 600 legs, excited scientists who want to preserve the tiny patch of land around where it was spotted.

"This is a milestone find," said Richard Hoffman, a millipede expert at the Virginia Museum of Natural History who had no connection with the discovery.

Despite the name, which means "thousand-legged," most millipedes have on average 300 legs. Of the estimated 10,000 species, only one — I. plenipes — comes close to living up to its name and only thrives in California.

That rare species was first spied in 1926 in San Benito County, about 120 miles southwest of San Francisco, by a government scientist who counted up to a record 750 legs. For decades, scientists flocked to the area in search of the leggy bug, but were unsuccessful.

It remained elusive until a 28-year-old scientist from East Carolina University, Paul Marek, and his brother chanced upon it last fall.

"I practically fell over when I found it. It was extremely exhilarating," said Marek, who published the discovery in Thursday's issue of the journal Nature.

Millipedes are found worldwide in temperate and tropical zones. They feed on plant material and tend to hide under moist soil, wood piles and rocks, making them difficult to find.

Armed with Google satellite maps, Marek set out for the missing-in-action millipede and found it in a lush valley of oak trees in San Benito County known as a biodiversity hot spot.

Marek declined to specify the exact location for fear of people disrupting the ecosystem.

Over three days, Marek and his brother collected a dozen millipedes and painstakingly counted their legs under a microscope to confirm that they were part of the same species. Of those captured, the leggiest were the females, which possessed between 662 to 666 legs.

The millipedes were brought back to Marek's lab in North Carolina where some were preserved for future DNA testing and others were shipped out to the Field Museum in Chicago for study.

Darrell Ubick, an entomologist with the San Francisco-based California Academy of Sciences who unsuccessfully hunted for the millipede years ago, applauded the latest finding.

"By rediscovering it, we add more pieces of the puzzle to understanding it," he said.