[monkeywire] Millipedes move in, and the monkeys go wild

Josh Greenman joshg1973 at yahoo.com
Fri Aug 9 10:50:21 EDT 2002


Posted on Thu, Aug. 08, 2002Millipedes move in, and the monkeys go wild
At South Dade attraction, they give the primates a natural high
dovalle at herald.com
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Georgia the owl monkey is at it again. But her caretakers at Monkey Jungle are no longer worried as they watch her frenzied rolls across the bottom of her cage. After all, they have concluded, she is under the influence.

An imported species of millipede from the West Indies is flourishing in parts of South Florida, experts say. The capuchin and owl monkeys at the park like to rub the creatures on their fur, which sends them into a delirious state, said Sian Evans, who heads the DuMond Conservancy, a primate conservation group based at Monkey Jungle, the South Miami-Dade tourist attraction.

A species of South Florida birds also likes the millipedes. Grackles pick them up with their beaks and use them to anoint the area under their wings.

Millipedes defend themselves by secreting a chemical that acts as a natural bug repellent, said Virginia-based millipede expert Richard Hoffman, who helped identify the species. Scientists believe the monkeys rub the bugs on their fur to ward off mosquitoes, a behavior documented in capuchin monkeys but never in the nocturnal owl monkeys.


The millipedes' secretions induce an excited state in the monkeys that lasts up to 30 minutes, kind of like how cats react to catnip.

''They bite the millipedes, then reach behind their back and rub it on their fur,'' said Evans, who added that the behavior is natural but rarely seen. ``Their eyes glaze over and they're completely focused on what they're doing.''

Last week, one monkey shared a millipede with four family members and the entire family turned into a ``writhing mass.''

''Could it be we have stumbled upon an ancient primate form of hallucinogens?'' Hoffman said. ``Who knows?''

The presence of the nonnative millipedes at Monkey Jungle drew the attention of the few millipede experts in the country, as well as scientists with the Miami-Dade County Cooperative Extension Service in Homestead.

Students from Florida International University also are studying the millipedes. Senior Cher Moody, a biology major, was the first to test the millipedes on monkeys at the park.

The Anadenobolus monilicornis millipedes may have come from the West Indies or South America on imported plants or fruits more than a year ago, Hoffman said. State agriculture inspectors are trying to determine the critters' origin.

There are about 10,000 known species of millipedes, which are not to be confused with centipedes. Millipedes have two legs per segment with some species reaching up to 11 inches in length.


The West Indies species can grow up to four inches -- twice as long as common South Florida millipedes. Unlike the natives' dull gray color, the West Indian variety has bright yellow and red rings.

''If you like small animals that are not furry, they're kind of cute,'' County Extension Service entomologist Adrian Hunsberger said as she examined one on her desk.

Dr. Paul Weldon, a scientist with the Smithsonian's Conservation and Research Center in Front Royal, Va., visited the park at 14805 SW 216th St., last weekend to test the monkeys' reactions to natural millipede chemicals.

Weldon, who has been researching nontoxic mosquito repellents for the Army, found the monkeys had already been experimenting with the new breed crawling through the park.

He sent live samples to Hoffman in Martinsville, Va., who identified them. The species has never been recorded in significant numbers in the United States.

The new species seems to be displacing the native species at the park, outmaneuvering them for the decaying plants that millipedes eat, Evans said.

She said the millipedes do not have a negative impact on the environment.

''It's a fairly benign invasion,'' Hoffman said. ``It will be interesting to keep an eye on it and see and how far it spreads. It may become established and successful or it could be short-term.''

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