The Bug Geek

Insects. Doing Science. Other awesome, geeky stuff.

Weirdness in the woods

So three days ago, the dogs and I were doing our usual tour of the woodlot across the way from our home. It’s a mix of grown-over old field, and of white pine and cedar plantations.  We got to the cedar section, which used to include part of a skidoo trail; the old winter hut is still there but in shambles. I had it in my head that I would keep an eye out for neat mushrooms (the bit of rain we’ve had lately has brought forth some beauties) so I was focusing on old stumps and fallen trees.  I spotted something interesting – not a mushroom, but a pair of giant millipedes on a stump! Yay!

I approached quickly in hopes of snapping a pic or two but soon realized there was no need for stealth or speed – the critters were dead, frozen in a weird tableau.

I picked both of them up for a closer inspection; yep, dead – not just simply molted exuviae. Huh. Odd.

We carried on down the path another dozen metres or so, still looking for mushrooms, and it quickly became apparent that we were literally surrounded by death. On both sides of the path, nearly every stump was littered with millipede corpses.

I’ve walked through these little woods hundreds of times in the past 6 years and have never seen anything like this before.  I planned to go back the next day for more pictures (finally got a flash!) and to better document the situation, but work, teaching duties and my thesis proposal got in the way. By the time I got back yesterday, my fears that I might have missed my window of opportunity were confirmed: most of the evidence was gone, presumably becoming a snack for foraging birds and mammals. Of the few millipede bodies I was able to find, the two that originally caught my attention were still frozen in time on a deathbed of soft moss:

If anyone has any insight as to what on earth happened here, I would welcome it. The googles have not been very helpful…

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18 responses to “Weirdness in the woods

  1. Jon September 18, 2011 at 1:44 PM

    I think the tittle fits the post very well.
    What on earth???

  2. Katie September 18, 2011 at 11:13 PM

    I’m curious to know, too. I’ve e-mailed Dr. Rowland Shelley at the North Carolina State Museum of Natural Sciences with a link to your post. If he doesn’t know, maybe he knows someone who does.

  3. Morgan Jackson September 19, 2011 at 9:54 PM

    First can I say how freaking awesome that last photo is (even if it’s of a not-so-living millipede)? BugShot2011 is paying for itself already!

    As for the millipedes, I’ve also seen a number of these same millipedes dead in similarly conspicuous spaces throughout the summer! I had assumed some sort of fungal or viral assassin, but those are some extremely high numbers of death in your woodland, so maybe something more sinister is afoot! Can’t wait to hear more about what you find out!

  4. Charley Eiseman September 22, 2011 at 12:31 AM

    These millipedes are victims of a pathogenic fungus. Kathie Hodge at Cornell would probably be interested in specimens if you find any more.

    • TGIQ September 27, 2011 at 12:27 PM

      Charley, I just discovered your comments in my “spam” bin! I’m so glad I looked because it it’s clear that you’re the person responsible for directing Kathie to this post. Thank you so much for this information (and for trying valiantly to repost it – your second comment got eaten by the spam filter too!) You’ve got a really nice blog and a great photographic eye…a new read for my blogroll!

      • Charley Eiseman September 28, 2011 at 12:22 PM

        Ah, that explains it! I think my including a link in the comment must have been what sent it to the spam bin. The same thing happened when I posted a link to your site on Kathie’s blog–but in that case I was alerted that my comment had been marked as spam, so I emailed her directly. Glad you two were able to connect!

  5. Dave September 26, 2011 at 11:50 AM

    I’ve seen mass migrations of millipedes and it is possible these are the ones that fell along the way. The story I heard is that dry autumn conditions stimulate the mass exodus (and they sometimes end-up in people’s basements), but I’d be interested to hear what Roland Shelley has to say.

    • Katie September 28, 2011 at 11:53 AM

      Dr. Shelley didn’t have much to say except that cedar areas were not good habitats for millipedes. I’m going to forward him the information about Kathie Hodge’s research.

  6. Kathie Hodge September 27, 2011 at 12:24 AM

    Oooo, ahhh, I know these. They are all killed by a handsome fungus that I have been working on. Right now I’m terribly curious about their distribution and host range, so I’d love so see some dried specimens, even crummy ones, and know where they’ve been spotted. Hello! and my thanks to Charley Eiseman for tipping me off to your nice blog.

    • TGIQ September 27, 2011 at 7:35 AM

      Kathie, THANK you for chiming in on this! I will be in the woods today with the dogs and will do my best to collect any remnants (there aren’t many left – scavenging I think), but I’ll get what I can. I’ll be in touch!

      • TGIQ September 27, 2011 at 12:28 PM

        Two vials of millipede carcasses and some GPS coordinates are yours for the taking, Kathie!

        • TGIQ September 27, 2011 at 12:31 PM

          Also, I should say that I’m very pleased to learn that my first guess (fungal pathogen) was correct, even if the googles said such a thing didn’t exist! 🙂

          • Scott March 8, 2017 at 12:17 AM

            Cordyceps maybe? Whatever it is I wish we had some around here.. Millipedes every where in summer…inside…bad..
            Actually they sell some kind of cedar spray meant to deter them here in Japan.. Maybe the cedar killed them?

            • TGIQ March 30, 2017 at 11:53 AM

              I’ve since learned that it was an entomopathogenic fungus – a bug-killer – that specifically targets millipedes. The fungus changes their behaviour and causes them to climb up onto high places, where they die. Being up high means that the fungal spores have a better chance of spreading around and being cast about by the wind! It’s an absolutely fascinating system!

  7. Derek Hennen August 30, 2012 at 12:20 AM

    Do you have any updates about this, Crystal? It’s something I should keep an eye out for as I hunt for millipedes.

    • TGIQ August 30, 2012 at 8:05 AM

      I do, actually, but I’m waiting a bit to hear from someone…actually, that reminds me that it was on my list of things to do. Let me check in with my contact, and I’ll get back to you!

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