Millipedes in Zimbabwe

Millipedes in Zimbabwe

Peer-reviewed paper series

Dangerfield, J. M., & Telford, S. R. (1991). Seasonal activity patterns of julid millipedes in Zimbabwe. Journal of Tropical Ecology, 7(2), 281-285.


This is a cute little paper, one of the first to come out of a brief but very fruitful collaboration with my colleague and friend, the late Steven Telford.

It reads like it was squeezed out of the smallest amount of data possible, then imbued with youthful enthusiasm and naivety. Which is exactly what happened.

Steve and I worked together in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Zimbabwe in the late 1980’s. It was a time of transition from old colonial times to a more modern independence for the country and long before the University conferred a doctorate for being the president’s wife. Apparently, use of the ‘Dr’ moniker lends gravitas even without completing the research or writing a thesis.

Back then there were still a few old timey academics wandering the halls musing on the number and size of parasites you could find in an elephant carcass or the physiology of crocodiles that leaves them in a near death oxygen debt after a charge to catch prey. We had access to these singular minds and to their eccentricities but not the rocking chair in the corner office that was always reserved for lunchtime siestas.

Steve was a fine zoologist who knew a great deal about the mating behaviours of frogs, particularly the painted reed frog, Hyperolius marmoratus, and he was very popular with the students who liked his teaching style and his up to date eccentricities. Many an hour was spent shuffling cards on a makeshift table under a marula tree having first taught the honours class how to play.

For a long time, we had just said hello or had an occasional brief exchange in the tearoom. Then one day Steve invited me to help on a field trip he was planning for his third-year zoology students to the Zambezi Valley. I think I said ‘thank you, happy to help’ but in hindsight, I should have rained gratitude from the heavens.

We stayed at the Rukomichi Research Station and messed around with some field work of various types and I had my first real elephant encounter. Steve was after some ecological insights and techniques so we taught sampling specifics (the how to do it) and some of the statistical logic (how many samples do you need to make an inference) for dung beetle numbers.

Moving nearer to the Zambezi, the students marveled at, and Steve commented on, the zoology of the prolific wildlife in Mana Pools where the warden’s office was flanked by rhino skulls. And everyone played cards.

It was idyllic.

Inevitably there was science talk. What, why and how questions about everything from the impenetrability of jesse bush to the mating system of impala — territorial males holding harems in case you were wondering. And then millipedes because I had already clocked them as a fascinating option for a soil ecologist to work on given they were prolific, huge, diverse and, most importantly, barely studied. The fact that their mating habits were readily observable did it for Steve.

We conjured up any number of hypotheses about their ecology and evolutionary biology and started to test many of them in the lab and on many a field excursion. Foraging activity was one of the behaviours we observed and this paper came from the first data we collected.

It was obvious that these animals were seasonal, holding out deep in the soil during the dry season and emerging after the first or sometimes the second major rain event in October. They walked around on the surface after rain stopping to eat and mate. Then as the soil dried they sheltered in shallow burrows or under the wooden blocks we scattered through the miombo woodland and degraded habitats in our study area.

The seasonal pattern of abundance was refined in later work but this first graphic was pretty close.

Screen Shot 2017-06-22 at 9.14.21 pm.png

Probably the most interesting number from this work was 30.6%, our estimate of the proportion of annual leaf litter fall consumed by millipedes.

How did we get from a graph of activity to food eaten? Activity plus density multiplied by the amount of food eaten per animal compared against the annual litterfall. It takes a lot of information to get to even a vaguely useful number. It was easy enough to publish observations it takes much more to make them helpful.

I continued to watch these animals walk around after rain for nearly a decade. Several more papers followed that we might get to later, but this one was the start of something that only happens occasionally. A professional relationship that was truly synergistic and produced far more than it should.

Millipede_Activity.jpg

Steve passed away in Mozambique a few years after I moved to Australia. We had stayed good friends but lost contact and I was unable to find out any of the circumstances. It is a regret and a sadness. Part of the reason for revisiting some of our work is to remember him.

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