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Virginia Tech’s Derek Hennen Names New Centipede Species After Taylor Swift | Lifestyles

By on May 2, 2022 0

When you think of Taylor Swift, you probably don’t imagine a myriapod invertebrate with an elongated body and many legs. When Derek Hennen, an entomologist at Virginia Tech, discovered a new species of centipede, he named it Nannaria swiftae, or the twisted-clawed swift centipede. Hennen, Jackson Means and Paul Marek discovered 17 new species of Appalachian twisted centipedes in their to research.

Interestingly, Hennen was not originally into the fascinating world of centipedes or even insects in general. As a child, he was much more interested in Pokémon.

“If you talk to a lot of entomologists, a lot of them will say, you know, oh, ‘I’ve been interested in insects since I was 5 years old,’ and I wasn’t one of those kids. “Hennen said. “I was more interested in, like, playing Pokemon. So I guess that kind of primed me for the whole collecting genre.

Hennen was exposed to centipedes as an undergraduate at Marietta College during his junior and senior years. He began learning about insects from his biology teachers, many of whom were entomologists.

“One summer I was able to attend a little weekend workshop at a nature preserve, and it was focused on identifying centipedes and centipedes,” Hennen said. “And, I’ve never been interested in them before.”

Part of Hennen’s initial intrigue came from the fact that there were so many undiscovered species with interesting biology. Hennen said there is a misconception that you have to go somewhere exotic or tropical to find new diverse species.

“They were just everywhere in the forests, like where I grew up, there were even undescribed species,” Hennen said.

Another part of the field that caught Hennen’s attention was the desire to collect more species coupled with taxonomy. This fascination led Hennen to take an interest in studying cherry centipedes for his doctorate. Cherry millipedes have chemical defenses of hydrogen cyanide, a poison, and benzaldehyde, which produces a cherry smell. These tusks protect them against predators. You can find these centipedes in the woods feeding on rotting leaves and dead wood.

“If a bird eats one, it contains enough poison to kill it,” Hennen said.

Hennen had another undergraduate moment that confirmed her desire to continue studying centipedes. He shined a UV light on centipedes which fluoresced under the light.

“They’re shining this really nice kind of blue screen here,” Hennen said. “I went out one night and just showed the flashlight and just seeing them crawling on the leaves (it’s) really cool and it just captivated me and I was like, ‘This is what i want to do. And so, you know, it’s just one of those random encounters where it’s like that, so, that’s what a lot of my life is going to be like now.

Hennen focused on crooked-clawed centipedes when he discovered Swiftae Nannaria. He and his colleagues went to forests and national parks and found the species in moist habitats next to streams, with lots of hemlock and rhododendron. Hennen and his colleagues collected them from moisture-filled microhabitats. Hennen and his colleagues took the Nannaria swiftae back to their lab, removed their legs, and preserved them in 100% ethanol for genetic analysis.

“We would basically take these legs, extract DNA, and then use all of this data to build these evolutionary trees of how centipedes relate to each other,” Hennen said. “By doing that, we were able to identify, OK, you know, that’s the species, and then figure out which of them were new or undescribed and how they all relate to each other.”

The researchers would use genetic data and examine the shape of centipede genitalia to determine if they had discovered a new species. Hennen explained that it is important to examine the genitalia to identify most groups of arthropods like the centipede.

When new species are discovered, the scientists who discover them can name them. Hennen had thought about naming a species after Taylor Swift for a while before finding the perfect one to carry her namesake. Hennen discovered this particular centipede at Fall Creek Falls State Park in Tennessee and made the connection that Swift moved to the same state to start her music career in Nashville.

Hennen had to follow a set of standards to find the scientific name and format it correctly, but all he had to do was just add an -ae to the end of Swift’s name.

Hennen said he listens to Swift’s music while driving for field work or working from home, so that seemed like an appropriate name for this new species.

“What better way to thank her for the joy her music has brought me than to name a little species of centipede after her,” Hennen said.

Nannaria swiftae isn’t the only centipede species Hennen has named — he also named one he found in Stanton, Va., after his wife. It’s called the Nannaria marianae or the twisted-claw centipede of the Maple Flats. Hennen’s wife often went on hikes with him, where he stopped to look for centipedes.

“I don’t think we’ve been on a hike or a nature walk without me stopping to look for centipedes, and she was always very patient and understanding about it,” Hennen said. “So, you know, it’s my way of saying thank you to him and being there for me and not being too annoyed that all of our walks are taking a lot longer.”

Hennen and his colleagues’ research has led to the discovery of 17 new species of crooked-clawed millipedes, and species like these may be much better protected once discovered by scientists. Hennen’s findings impacted our understanding of these species and put Virginia Tech’s entomology department on the map.