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Alumni & Friends

Millipede M.I.A. No Longer

Any millipede trying to lie low would be wise to stay far away from Paul Marek (M.A., '02). During the summer, the entomologist found a species that hadn't been seen in 80 years: I. plenipes -- the leggiest creature on the planet.

Although millipede implies 1,000 legs, most have about 300. Marek's find boasts a whopping 666. In June, news of the reemergence of the recluse hit the pages of Nature and of newspapers across the country.

Marek first heard about the elusive arthropod while pursuing his master's degree in biology at SF State. Professor Greg Spicer says that over the years, he and others have searched in vain for the creature. "I've turned over a few logs," Spicer says. "It's remarkable Paul found it."

When the millipede showed itself, Marek was searching in San Benito County with his brother Rob and Jason Bond, his advisor at East Carolina University where Marek is pursuing his doctorate. The group did a collective doubletake. "I was very surprised," says Marek, who knew right away he was looking at I. plenipes in all its nonpigmented glory. "It was pretty intense and exhilarating." The millipede was not alone. Marek and his codiscoverers collected a total of 12 millipedes, all females.

Professor Spicer says that these millipedes are "either rare or we just don't know how to find them. The discovery shows how little we still understand about them." So how did Marek locate I. plenipes? He says he carefully considered topography, moisture, surrounding trees and gullies.

Keeping the location a secret, Marek hopes, will protect I. plenipes from any unwanted disturbances -- including overzealous bug collectors. "Most importantly, I hope the discovery will garner support of the habitat," he says. "It speaks to the need to preserve healthy habitats, ones that contain the greatest amount of biodiversity."

With support from the National Science Foundation, Marek is studying another group of millipedes, in the Appalachian mountains. His research involves molecular techniques learned from Spicer and DNA sequencing practiced at the University's Conservation Genetics Lab. Marek lists Lab Director Frank Cipriano and biology Professor Robert Patterson among his influences although he started collecting insects long before he came to SF State. He recalls, "My mom kept plenty of room in the freezer for my dragonflies."

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