You can find some pretty strange creatures in New York City's Central Park, especially after dark. But it's not every day that you run into one with poisonous fangs and 41 pairs of legs. In fact, this particular creature had never before been seen by scientists, in or out of the city, which is why it made headlines last week.
Technically, the 82-leg beast is a centipede (despite their name, centipedes never have exactly 100 legs). But it is so unusual that taxonomists determined it is not just a new species but a new genus as well. (Genus is a broader taxonomic category that can cover dozens of species. House cats and mountain lions, for example, are two species within the genus Felis.)
Ten of these tiny centipedes (about 0.4 in. long) were retrieved from samples of leaf litter as part of a biological dragnet conducted in 1998 for the Central Park Conservancy by researchers Liz Johnson and Kefyn Catley of the American Museum of Natural History. Their mission: to assess the health of the park's somewhat trampled woodland ecosystem in order to better preserve it. The creatures they collected were sorted and sent to various taxonomists for positive ID, which is how this one ended up in the hands of Richard Hoffman, curator of invertebrates at the Virginia Museum of Natural History.
When Hoffman took a close look, he knew he was dealing with an exotic species, and so he sent it packing to centipede experts in Italy, who named it Nannarrup hoffmani in his honor. The new centipede's closest relatives are found in East Asia, and Hoffman believes it may have made its way to the Big Apple in something as ordinary as potting soil.
That it took four years to identify Nannarrup hoffmani is a testament to how far out of favor the science of taxonomy has fallen since its heyday in the 19th century. The urge to classify the world's flora and fauna, which filled the great natural-history museums like New York City's American Museum of Natural History and Washington's Smithsonian Institution, has been eclipsed according to Hoffman by a preoccupation with molecular biology. "It's a sad situation," he says. "We're coasting on the glamour of biodiversity but losing the ability to identify the creatures on this planet." Even the ones in a big city park.
--By David Bjerklie