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Found up to 1,100 metres below the surface, the record-breaking centipede has been given the name Geophilus hadesi, after Hades, the Greek god of the underworld.
Geophilus hadesi joins Geophilus persephones, named after Hades’ wife, as the only known exclusively cave-dwelling centipedes of the long-bodied group known as geophilomorphs.
While many centipedes find their way into caves, attracted by their coolness and dampness, these are the only two species of their kind that seem to live there full-time. Most of the other 1,250 species live in soil, in leaf litter or in wood.
Geophilus hadesi, which is only a couple of centimetres long, was discovered by members of the Croatian Biospeleological Society in three caves in the Velebit Mountains, Croatia. It was described this week in a paper published in the journal ZooKeys by scientists from Europe, including Museum centipede expert Dr Greg Edgecombe.
The Hades centipedes display many traits of other cave-dwelling creatures, such as elongated antennae and claws, the latter probably for getting a firm grip on the rocky walls of their caves.
Although they are blind, centipedes in this family are excellent hunters of smaller invertebrates, using their sensitive antennae to feel for prey. When they find a suitable victim, they pounce, injecting a venom that acts as a neurotoxin to immobilise their prey before secreting digestive juices to partially liquefy the body for consumption.
Dr Edgecombe said there are still a lot of species to discover in caves. ‘Finding remarkable animals like a centipede walking on cave walls more than half a mile underground is a reminder that there is still a vast amount of basic biodiversity discovery to be made, even in Europe.
’Very few biologists work in these conditions. You have to have the skills to explore caves of that depth and the biological knowledge to search for interesting creatures.’ The deepest specimen was found 1,100 metres down in the Lukina Jama-Trojama cave system. This system stretches 1,431 metres down, making it the fifteenth deepest cave in the world.
Lead author of the paper Pavel Stoev from the National Museum of Natural History in Bulgaria, said: ’When I first saw the animal and its striking appearance, I immediately realised that this is a new, hitherto unnamed and highly adapted to cave environment species. This finding comes to prove once again how little we know about the life in caves, where even in the best prospected areas, one can still find incredible animals.’