- Associated Press - Saturday, March 26, 2016

BLACKSBURG, Va. (AP) - When Paul Marek is in some of the most scenic places in America he can’t stop staring at the ground.

The Virginia Tech entomologist, devoted to studying millipedes, is constantly searching for creepy crawlies that likely have been around for tens of millions of years - but have never been classified by humans.

“There’s a blur between work and vacation when you’re an entomologist,” Marek said. “You’re always looking at the ground.”

And all that staring has paid off for the taxonomist who specializes in millipede research. In his career he’s discovered and named about a dozen millipede species.

Last month, he got one of the highest tributes for a scientist who spends his time toiling in the dirt to make discoveries: a tarantula species bearing his name, Aphonopelma mareki.

“It’s a real honor,” Marek said.

A couple of years ago, Marek, 38, said he was on a hike with his wife in central Arizona when he noticed a tarantula he’d never seen before.

The small, hairy spider was docile and easy for him to scoop up into an empty peanut butter jar with a little nudge on its hind legs, mostly because “they’re a really chill organism,” he said.

Marek sent the arthropod, the first male specimen collected, to a friend from graduate school who specializes in spider research. The friend, Brent Hendrixson of Millsaps College, recently named the new species - along with many others - in the scientific journal Zoo-Keys.

According to Hendrixson the tarantula is small enough to fit on a quarter, which makes it distinct and is one of the spider scientist’s “favorites.”

That makes it appropriate to name it in homage to Marek.

“He is a fantastic evolutionary biologist and a strong advocate for biodiversity research, so it seemed fitting to name this tarantula after him,” Hendrixson wrote in an email.

But, Marek said, he’s done little to study tarantulas beyond looking out for the arthropods in grad school at East Carolina University while on expeditions where the pair would eat ramen noodles or hot dogs while looking for millipedes and spiders together.

Hendrixson wrote that the move to name a tarantula after Marek was a tribute to the work Marek has done for science and understanding the many-legged bug.

Marek’s research has led him to name about a dozen millipede species and his work on bioluminescence in millipedes that live in the western U.S. has been featured in National Geographic magazine and The New York Times’ ScienceTake blog.

Naming a species isn’t a simple task, Marek said.

In order for it to happen, a researcher needs to be an expert on the genus that the species falls under and then needs to publish a taxonomic revision in a science journal, he said. The scientists will also need to sequence the bug’s DNA markers to make sure that it is, in fact, a different species.

Currently, with the assistance of a few folks who work in his lab, Marek is working on naming several new species of Appalachian millipedes.

Entomology doctoral students Jackson Means and Derek Hennen said they’ve spent many hours traipsing through the wilderness around Southwest Virginia in search of new species.

Marek said that it appears small groups in the Appalachians will evolve together

One unnamed species that Marek and his team have found appears to only live on Brush Mountain, northwest of Blacksburg.

Like many of Appalachia’s species, it has colorful yellow stripes and emits enough cyanide to kill more than a dozen pigeons - a common predator of millipedes. Because of the poison, most predators try to stay away, Marek said.

And because mimicry in the species’ evolution is common in Appalachia’s millipedes, predation is reduced across species, he said.

Means said in expeditions around Pandapas Pond and on private property in the area he and other researchers have found a species that they’ve been unable to find anywhere else. Currently the students and Marek are sequencing the species’ DNA to ensure that it really is a unique species.

Means said it probably evolved independent of other millipede species because of the terrain and isolation of that area. That yet-to-be-named species has likely lived on Brush Mountain for tens of thousands of years but barely been noticed by humans.

But people should take a notice to the tiny bug, according to Marek.

The millipede is a vital piece of Appalachia’s ecosystem, Marek said. Without them, a trek through the woods would likely leave hikers up to their necks in dead leaves.

Millipedes are some of the fastest eaters of dead material on forest floors across the region and are responsible for eating tons of dead leaves every year. So exploring them is important for researchers to understand the relationship between animals and humanity, Marek said.

Hennen estimated that there are as many as 250 known species of millipedes in Virginia - a fraction of the 12,000 known species around the world. Scientists have made many guesses about the total number, but there may be as many as 80,000 species across the globe, Hennen said.

Identifying millipedes in the future will expand horizons. And will probably lead to species named after the folks at Tech who are doing one of the largest portions of millipede research in the nation.

“It’s like we’re modern-day explorers,” Hennen said. “This must be similar to what (Charles) Darwin felt in the Galapagos.”

“They’re just such an understudied group,” Means added.

For more information on Marek, or if you would like his team to rummage around your property looking for millipedes, visit his lab’s blog jointedlegs.org.


Information from: The Roanoke Times, https://www.roanoke.com

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