By Piotr Naskrecki - A couple of weeks ago I was ripping slabs of bark off an old fallen log, an activity that to me ranks among the most pleasurable things one can do, right up there with unwrapping Christmas presents. There is always a chance of finding something incredible – a beautiful cerambycid beetle, a colony of Pyramica, a ricinuleid. But then I pulled off a big chunk of bark and caught a glimpse of an animal that made me think that I am having a stroke. For a split of a second I saw what clearly appeared to be a large centipede, nothing unusual about it, only this one had two long feathers attached to the back of its body. Before I could get a really good look, it jumped off the log and disappeared in a tangle of branches on the forest floor. “I must be really dehydrated” was the only explanation I could come up with, and I made an active effort to forget about the whole thing.
Photo: A strange chimera, the feather-legged centipede (Alipes sp.)
But the strange chimera turned out to be very real. Last night, while rummaging around the camp at night, I found another one. The animal is indeed a centipede, a member of the mysterious genus Alipes(“feather leg”), closely related to scolopendras, and found only in parts of eastern Africa. Its last pair of legs is modified into large, feather-like paddles, the function of which is unclear. According to some sources the “feathers” can vibrate to produce a rustling sound, but I find it unlikely as they are quite soft and very flexible. This animal is also unusual among centipedes in possessing distinct longitudinal ridges on its tergites (most species have the dorsum smooth and shiny). Otherwise it behaves like a typical scolopendra, always trying to bite you and ripping to shreds any animal that it can sink its fangs (forcipules) into. And if anybody knows more about this amazing animal I would love to hear it.
Photo: A closeup of the “feathers” of Alipes. Their function in this centipede remains a mystery.
Read more on Piotr’s blog “The Smaller Majority”