This is one of those times when scientists discover a structure whose function is absolutely mysterious. Piotr (Peter) Naskrecki, an entomologist, photographer and author working the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard, is currently in Mozambique, documenting his adventures at a website called The Smaller Majority. Piotr is one of the best animal photographers ever, and his Mozambique entries are not disappointing. His latest entry, “Mozambique Diary: Alipes“, recounts his finding a bizarre centipede, pictured below. It’s so new, in fact, that I don’t think it yet has a species name: it’s simply called Alipes (the genus) “sp.” (species).
Have a look at this baby, and realize that those appendages are not in the front, but are the modified rear legs of this arthropod. And their function is completely unknown. (Photos reproduced by permission.)
Piotr saw one of these under tree bark earlier, but it disappeared before he could get a shot. Then, one night, he found one in camp. As he describes:
Last night, while rummaging around the camp at night, I found another one. The animal is indeed a centipede, a member of the mysterious genus Alipes (“feather leg”), closely related to scolopendras, and found only in parts of eastern Africa. Its last pair of legs is modified into large, feather-like paddles, the function of which is unclear. According to some sources the “feathers” can vibrate to produce a rustling sound, but I find it unlikely as they are quite soft and very flexible. This animal is also unusual among centipedes in possessing distinct longitudinal ridges on its tergites (most species have the dorsum smooth and shiny). Otherwise it behaves like a typical scolopendra, always trying to bite you and ripping to shreds any animal that it can sink its fangs (forcipules) into. And if anybody knows more about this amazing animal I would love to hear it.
Here’s a close-up of the forceps. If any reader wants to hazard a guess about what they do, be my guest.
Oh, and be sure to see Piotr’s post on the Mozambique golden bat.
‘h/t: Alex Wild tweet via Matthew Cobb