Scolopendra alcyona, a new giant amphibian centipede, was recently found on several islands in an archipelago in Japan. It was the first new species of centipede to be identified in Japan in 143 years and the third swimming centipede in the world in the genus Scolopendra, comprising around 100 species.
S. alcyona is approximately 8 inches long, has 20 pairs of legs, and is the largest known centipede of the Ryukyu Islands, a chain of about 200 non-volcanic islands between Kyushu, Japan’s southernmost island, and Taiwan. , according to a new study.
The species name of S. alcyona is derived from Alcyone, a woman in Greek mythology who was cursed by the gods after comparing herself to the goddess Hera and transformed into a “halcyon bird,” today called divination.
One of the S. alcyona centipedes collected had a jade-green leg similar to that of a kingfisher. The centipede’s preference for aquatic habitat inspired the choice of names, the study authors wrote.
In Japanese, the name of the new species is Ryûjin-hugukade, which is also derived from mythology. Hundreds of years ago, in the Ryukyu Islands, people decorated their boats with the image of the centipede on the flag to protect themselves against ryujin – a dragon god.
Local legend at the time spoke of a ryujin who was afraid of a centipede after being bitten in the ear by a centipede. Researchers collected seven specimens of the unknown species and seven centipedes from two other species of the genus Scolopendra – S. mutilans and S. subspinipes – collected centipede from Okinawa-jima Island, Island of Kumejima, Chichi-jima Island and central Honshu in Kanagawa Prefecture. They examined the physical characteristics of undescribed individuals and performed genetic analysis.
Some S. alcyona centipedes are found under rocks in stream beds or hunt in rivers. According to the study, other centipede species escaped by diving into rivers, showing that S. alcyona was the same both in water and on land.
Study co-author Katsuyuki Eguchi, associate professor at Tokyo University of Science, said the differences between certain body characteristics in animals could help scientists distinguish very similar species. But such an analysis can be difficult when it comes to Scolopendra centipede.
“In general, although Scolopendra species have a large body size, there are only a few morphological differences between closely related species,” Eguchi said.
Scolopendra centipeds also vary widely in the body color of a given species, which can complicate species differentiation efforts. Ultimately, the combination of physical traits – spur in the twentieth legs and the lack of specialized legs to transfer sperm to females and molecular data defines S. alcyona as a special species.
“The discovery of one of the largest new terrestrial vertebrates in Japan and Taiwan seems to indicate that the Ryukyu Islands are a treasure house of nature and biodiversity,” Eguchi said. However, scientists fear that undescribed plant and animal species may become extinct before researchers can identify them due to the alarming rate of habitat loss.
Giant centipedes like S. alcyona are also hunted by many people, although they are extremely difficult to breed and keep in captivity. Collectors passionate about the pet trade may also accelerate the decline of these centipedes.