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The mere sight of a centipede, with multiple legs that range from 16 to nearly 190 pairs, triggers fear and makes people uncomfortable! However, these creepy crawlies, which are always misunderstood, could well hold the key to understanding the rules of ecology and evolution of the Western and Eastern Ghats of India.

To better understand the 400 million years of evolution of centipedes, their body size, other physical features and the overall evolution of their habitat, PhD scholars and researchers led by Jahnavi Joshi from Hyderabad-based Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) are in the forests of the Agasthhyamalai Biosphere Reserve at Peppara Wildlife Sanctuary, Kerala, on the lookout for the multi-legged arthropods.

Unlike most research groups that focus on taxonomy and their classification, according to senior scientists from CCMB, Joshi, who leads the only research group in India that is involved in the study of centipedes, has taken the study to the next level by using centipedes to understand the rules of ecology and evolution.

Moreover, instead of using lab-grown animal models, the CCMB research team studies invertebrates such as centipedes and millipedes found in the wild, the senior genetic scientists from CCMB said. In June, the group investigated the genetic diversity of centipedes and concluded the prevalence of high genetic biodiversity among the species.

“A wide variation in genetic diversity across centipede species falls towards the higher end of values among arthropods. Overall, 27.57 per cent of the variation in mitochondrial COI genetic diversity in centipedes was explained by a combination of predictors related to life history and biogeography. Genetic diversity decreased with body size and latitudinal position of sampled localities, was greater in species showing maternal care and increased with geographic distance,” their study, published in A Journal of Macroecology in June concluded.

The team active in the Western Ghats is expected to capture the centipedes, store them in special boxes and bring them back to their research laboratory for further study at CCMB. The researchers will also bring samples of other rare arthropods in the same ecosystem, back to the laboratories for further genetic research.

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