50 kg millipede roamed in equatorial Great Britain 326 million years ago

The experts have told us that giant millipedes as long as a car weighing 50 kg roamed across Great Britain 326 million years ago, which at that time was at the equator. We are familiar with the modern-day millipede which are small insects. I am reminded that scientists have also discovered a genuine millipede with more than 1,000 legs which was recently reported in the news media.

Monster millipede of 326 million years ago in Britain
Monster millipede of 326 million years ago in Britain. Image: MikeB.

This is the largest fossil of a giant millipede. The fossil was found on a Northumberland beach at Howick. The find was fortuitous because a section of cliff fell onto the shore. The scientists say that the creature became enormous by modern standards because they had available to them at the time a nutrient-rich plant diet. They may also have been predators eating other invertebrates or small amphibians.

Illustration of how the millipede might have looked
Illustration of how the millipede might have looked (University of Cambridge/PA).

They found a section of the creature’s exoskeleton, a segment about 75 cm long. From that they worked out that the entire body could have been around 2.7 m long and weighing 50 kg.

The creature lived more than 100 million years before the dinosaurs. At that time the UK was near the equator.

The fossil of the giant millipede
The fossil of the giant millipede. Photo: believed to be by University of Cambridge.

The find was made by a PhD student who was walking along the coast in January 2018. They spotted a large block of sandstone which had fallen from the cliff. It was described by Dr. Neil Davies of Cambridge University as “a complete fluke of a discovery. The way the boulder had fallen, it had cracked open and perfectly exposed the fossil, which one of our former PhD students happened to spot when walking by.”

Natural England and the Howick Estate granted permission to remove it. It was taken to Cambridge for analysis. Four people were required to carry the fossil.

It is believed that this enormous millipede crawled around Great Britain at that time for around 45 million years before becoming extinct. This may have occurred due to global warming at that time. Or it may have occurred because of the rise in the number of reptiles who outcompeted them.

Update

Here is some more information. Dr. Neil Davies said that “It’s certainly the biggest arthropod fossil-full stop-in the world.”

This specimen is only the third such fossil ever found. The other two were discovered in Germany more than a century ago. This creature would have been 55 cm wide. It appears that the fossil is a moulted piece of the Arthropleura’s exoskeleton which became filled with sand and which preserved it. They believe that the body had 30 segments. Each segment had either had two or four legs.

Scientists originally thought that the size of these creatures was due to elevated levels of oxygen in the air during the late Carboniferous and Permian periods. However, the new fossil shows that this can’t be the full story as it predates the oxygen rises at those times.

The fossil has been described in the Journal of the Geological Society. It will go on public display at Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences in Cambridge in the new year.

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