M.I.A. No Longer
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
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,
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."