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Alcatraz millipedes glow in black light

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Alcatraz Millipedes
A hunt for rat poop on Alcatraz instead turned up a species of millipede that flouresces under black light. (Robert Kimsey/UC Davis)

As soon as we think we’ve got this world figured out, unbelievable phenomena like water on Mars, sledding crows and Nicky Minaj knock us back down to earth.

The latest confounding mystery of the universe was discovered by accident in, of all places, Alcatraz.

To help identify rat populations on Alcatraz, National Park Service staff on the isolated Bay island deploy bait for their subjects laced with fluorescent dye. They then used black lights at night to count the glowing pee and poop and assess the overall rat population.

During a recent poop hunt in February, no trace of rats was found. What they did find instead was a number of millipedes, glowing brightly under their black lights.

So, the millipedes got into the bait, or the poop, and started glowing, right? Not so fast.

To test that theory, a UC Davis researcher shined a black light over a case of preserved millipedes from the same family in the university’s Bohart Museum of Entomology. They glowed.

Though observations of photoluminescent millipedes have been made in the Bay Area before, they’ve never been seen on Alcatraz.

Robert Kimsey, entomology professor at UC Davis, is among those trying to determine if the Alcatraz millipedes are a new subspecies of Xystocheir dissecta, a millipede common in the Bay Area.

Kimsey told SFBay that, although informal observations of the flourescing millipedes may have occurred, the phenomena is not yet acknowledged in formal scientific literature:

“This fluorescing may have been observed before, but to our knowledge has not been published in the refereed scientific literature.”

Jesse Garnier
Jesse Garnier is the editor and founder of SFBay. A Mission District native, he also teaches journalism as assistant professor at San Francisco State University.

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