Sex in millipedes

Sex in millipedes

Peer-reviewed publications series #1

Suppose for some reason you want to know who is in control, the male or the female? Now this is a pretty deep psychological question that is at the heart of countless novels, TV dramas, and the routines of feminist comediennes.

It is central to evolutionary biology theory too. Do females choose mates and so have some control over the genes they pass on to their offspring? Eggs are generally more energetically expensive than sperm so females should be picky and males more profligate.

The male problem is making sure that one of your billions is the one. This explains pair bonds and the so-called ‘sneaky rutting’ so prevalent in birds, and in humans too it seems. Being the one also explains why males compete so emphatically with other males. An essential evolutionary strategy is to beat your rivals to it. Genes for ‘hang back and wait your turn’ rarely persist.

Enter a millipede species from southern Africa, Alloporus uncinatus, in the taxonomic Family Spirostreptidae. This animal is essentially a prehensile tube designed to burrow into soil and glean what can be had from dead vegetation. This simple design is truly ancient. Millipedes have ancestors in the Carboniferous — some 300 million years ago when oxygen levels in the atmosphere were higher and nothing else was big enough to eat them — that were over 2m long and 50cm wide. Truly pythonesque.

Yet the simplicity of this body plan, reduced to more modest proportions in modern species like A. uncinatus, hides some heady complexity. It seems that eons of millipede evolution created very specific sexual practices and accoutrements.

We are talking, multiple partners, rape, the occasional homosexual mistake, sperm competition, mate guarding, and elaborate genitalia. Not bad for a bug shaped like a bendy air hose.

So to the research.

When there is competition between males for females, one way for a male to increase his chance of fertilizing eggs is to hold on to the female for as long as possible and stand guard to prevent other males from doing the deed. An eerily familiar notion.

In millipedes, males do not fight amongst themselves to protect females, but they copulate for a long time, an hour and a half on average, coiling tightly around the female making it very difficult for any other males to try it on. Extend copulation for a long time and it would prevent other males gaining access to the female.

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Formally this is called the ‘copulatory-guarding hypothesis’ that predicts that if copulation duration is adaptive then copulations should last longer when the intensity of competition between males is high. Evidence for copulatory guarding has been recorded in some beetles, water striders, and stink bugs.

What we did was test the hypothesis with A. uncinatus by introducing additional males to the close confines of a pair already in the midst of the act.

If the hypothesis was true then copulation duration should increase as more males are added. You don’t need a PhD in statistics to confirm what happened, this graph should do it for you.

In this millipede species at least, males guard females from other males just as theory predicts.

Peer-reviewed publications

Peer-reviewed publications

Back in the day, I used to be a researcher, an academic plugging away to add just a few sand grains of evidence to the mountain of human knowledge.

It was a fun time.

The research process was to set a question that you had the means to investigate, gather data ideally through some sort of experimental design, analyse the numbers, compile your description of the outcomes and then send it all out to a fellow scientist who edits a peer-reviewed journal.

This last bit was essential. Publication in an erudite tome was and is the core currency of academia and it is serious business. The frequency and quality of your publications generate kudos and, for youngsters at least, determines your likelihood of future employment.

Turns out that, for me, publication became an addictive process. I set targets for the number — 30 by 30 and no less that five per year — and later to improve on the quality of this output. Peer-reviewed journals are ranked on their perceived importance so if your work ended up in the higher ranking ones it was more kudos and looked better on your resume.

However, the best bit was the freedom to investigate almost any topic you thought might get published. So we had a crack at everything from the burrowing behaviour of millipedes and the size of woodlouse eggs as a measure of maternal investment, to a hypothesis that mound-building termites engineered the landscape of the Okavango Delta.

Crazy stuff.

We even published on the sex life of male Alloporus uncinatus that, it turns out, struggle with sperm competition.

Here is what the unfortunate critter looks like.


Of course, publication is not quite what it sounds like. Most of these gems of research description were not read by anyone. Sometimes a truly dedicated PhD student in Algeria or Uzbekistan would politely request a copy of a paper that we would send by return post, never knowing if they ever read it.

Today, with the advent of electronic copy, database searches, Google scholar, and fatnastic archiving tools like Mendeley, many more people can find and gain access to almost any obscure grain of knowledge. A few extra reads are logged even of the old material. But, truthfully, there are more views of the train timetable than the average peer-reviewed publication. It is sad, but true.

So with this recollection firmly lodged, I thought I might bore you and excite me with an occasional series of posts here on the Alloporus blog — yes, the very same — to summarise in plain language some of the publications from my past.

Chances are that to get more reads than the originals, all I need is a click bait title.

Stay tuned.

A post revisited — Investment in energy research

A post revisited — Investment in energy research

This post on the remarkable level of investment in energy R&D in the US was written in September 2011. It is not my intent in these retrospectives to play the ‘I told you so’ card but given the egg on the faces of the current and recent Australian governments over energy security, it is pretty hard not to.

Did politicians really think that we have coal, oil and gas and so the job was done?

Emission notwithstanding, did they just sit back and let the end of life for major coal-fired power stations be someone else’ problem?

Well in Australia they did. In America too I suspect. Trump is not pulling the Paris pin because he is a climate sceptic, he’s keeping coal going so that, at least on his watch, the lights stay on across America. Nothing will kill your voter base faster than blackouts attributed to poor planning.

So here is what Alloporus thought in 2011 about energy R&D…

Investment in energy research

In the US Federal research funding into energy is $3 billion. This figure includes investment into oil, coal and gas as well as solar and other alternative energies.

Then there is a further $5 billion invested by the private sector for a total of $8 billion in an industry worth $1 trillion a year; making investment in R&D only 0.8% of revenues.

Apparently $8 billion pays for about 9 days of military involvement in Iraq – pretty scary and perhaps something they might look at when considering reducing budget deficit, but I digress.

The point here is that 0.8% is woeful. Any company that spent less than 1% of revenue on R&D would not last long. Given that energy is so critical to economic performance and given that we have reached peak oil and will eventually run out of coal and gas too, 0.8% seems irresponsible.

And then there is a huge global movement that believes we must tackle climate change by reducing emissions from greenhouse gases.

What should the investment be? In successful economies upwards of 3% of GDP is allocated to R&D, which is roughly $430 billion. This amount must cover many sectors but energy security should be worth at least 5% of the available budget or an order of magnitude more than the current allocation.

We are kidding ourselves if we think that energy security can be achieved when we invest peanuts.

There is money to be made from energy. There always has been. I bet that the first hunter-gatherers who figured out through trial and error how to transport fire with them as they wandered were revered and feared. The thinking and testing that went into creating and catching a spark to start fires was, well, gold to the people who mastered it.

The smart individuals who put a wheel into running water or threw a lump of coal onto the campfire might also have made a relative bob or two.

So it’s not about the returns. It is that it is future money. The power stations cornered the market for a period long enough to scorch the space for new investment. If end of life is 30 or 50 years away there is no market for anything else until then. There is no need to look forward as energy is secure.

This lack of foresight might just be our undoing.

11 million views and counting

The truth can be told in many different ways.

This one seems to be connecting…


Except that is it resonating?

11 million sounds like a lot but it is less than half the population of Australia, less than 0.6% of Facebook users, and a little under 7% of the global population increase since the message first appeared on YouTube in 2015.

No doubt there have been a few souls moved to action and every effort is worth it.

But to echo the analogy, the human impact on the planet still feels like

One Mississippi,

Two Mississippi,

Three Mississippi,


Disillusioned with politics

Disillusioned with politics

Apparently, it’s not just supporters of the Donald and Pauline who are upset about the state of political leadership. The rich and influential are disillusioned with politics too.

And fair enough.

Lack of direction, courage and conviction eventually drains everyone’s resolve. We all need something or someone to look up to, compare against and even aspire to become. It is the psychological glue that keeps most religions from fading into extinction.

Australia has had a decade of hope, false starts, and farce from its federal politicians. When all leaders can do is badmouth each other for sucking up to those with real influence, then the last hope is lost.

The problem is what to do about it.

Electing in the opposition just means more of the same. It simply fuels the downward cycle. Frustrated US citizens squeaked Donald over the line and he will disrupt in ways unimagined. But little of it will be desirable, even for his supporters. At some point, that experiment will pass.

The rich and influential group mentioned earlier are up for a new democracy that involves random selection and deliberation – the jury model – as a central process rather than elected representatives. A kind of back to the ancient future.

There is merit in this. A jury reaches a decision based on evidence and the inference they draw from it. Logic, reasoned argument and debate come together into consensus solutions that should make decisions more trustworthy. They should, at least, be less affected by partisan or vested interest.

The problem is the quality of the inference. Can a citizens assembly or jury have enough capacity to sift the evidence supplied to them for complex decisions like the design of the national broadband network or defence procurement or health funding? It would be instructive to find out.

It cannot be any worse than the ministerial Merry-go-round.

One million people

One million people

Consider a city of roughly 1 million people, Adelaide, Australia for example — Calgary, Canada; Bonn, Germany; Tuscon Arizona; or Bristol in the UK would do equally well.

Adelaide has two Australian Football League teams, a pro soccer team, two professional basketball teams, three Universities, a cathedral, numerous hospitals, many shopping malls, around 440 schools, an International airport, and a zoo.

There are over 400 suburbs arranged around a CBD that has high-rise office blocks that provide a common destination for a metropolitan public transport system that includes a fleet of over 1,000 buses.

There are doctors, dentists, lawyers, Artisans and actors; and enough skilled tradesmen to build or engineer almost anything.

In short, Adelaide is a self-contained community surrounded by enough farmland to feed everyone.

If it were possible to gather all the people who live in Adelaide into one, standing room only location it would be quite a spectacle. It is hard to imagine what it would look like.

There would people as far as the eye could see. Lay them down head to toe and the line would stretch 1,800 km — 400 km further than a road trip from Adelaide to Sydney.

Stand them in single file and the line would be 30 km long, similar to the queue at the post office.

Now having conjured the image of so many people in your mind’s eye put them all onto commercial aircraft.

Because 1 million is roughly the number of human beings who are, at any one time, airborne in commercial airliners making vapor trails around the globe.

This is both staggering and scary at the same time.

It is enough just to illustrate the scale of the challenge to provide life support to all the people we have made and still retain some environmental integrity.

First posted on LinkedIn