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Tracking the 'xysto whisperer'

Tracking the 'xysto whisperer'

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MABRY MILL — Armed with a broom handle attached to a corner brace, Jackson Means and Pat Shorter are out to save a tiny world.

The two Virginia Tech entomologists were on an unassuming side road off the Blue Ridge Parkway Wednesday near the Floyd and Patrick County line, searching for the Laurel Creek xystodesmid millipede. It’s a species that’s only found in a less than one square kilometer area in the forest there. It’s a xystodesmid, because it lives in a small area, named for the dominant physical feature found in its range.

The millipede, which was discovered by a Virginia Tech researcher in the 1980s, is what’s known as a micro-endemic species: An organism that inhabits less than a 100-square kilometer. It’s listed as a vulnerable species by Virginia’s Department of Conservation and Resources.

Means and Shorter were out this week to study the millipede’s potential range. Better understanding that can help scientists understand the type of ecosystem these millipedes thrive in and how they’re helping maintain it, said Means, a doctoral student at Tech.

Means has spent many days searching for millipedes underneath leaf litter in forests across Appalachia.

It’s earned him a nickname with Shorter, a recent graduate who works as an entomology collections manager at Tech.

“Jackson is the xysto whisperer,” Shorter said.

Millipedes are a vital part of the forest ecosystem found around the Blue Ridge Parkway and wider Southwest Virginia, Means said. The eyeless animals are master decomposers and help break down dead leaves on the forest floor.

“There are so many beautiful species that are just right under your feet,” Means said.

In Southwest Virginia there are a plethora of species that live in areas much like the Laurel Creek millipede — isolated from the wider world. Paul Marek, an entomologist at Tech and Means’ adviser, said he estimates there are between 150 and 200 species of millipedes living in Southwest Virginia, though many don’t have as small of an endemic range as the Laurel Creek millipede.

“The most important thing we’re doing is addressing the issue of anonymous extinction,” Marek said.

Marek said species that humans don’t identify might have an impact on ecosystems across the planet, and never understanding them might mean scientists can’t explain changes or patterns in how ecosystems function.

Means, as part of his work with Marek, said he’s identified between 40 and 50 species that he believes hadn’t been previously identified.

He said he is working on a paper to eventually name them all. Taxonomy, or identifying and naming species, is still a somewhat untapped part of entomology. There are so many different species of bugs that many have gone undiscovered.

“Even though we’ve collected pretty intensely we’ve probably only scratched the surface,” Means said.

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