For the first time in more than 100 years, scientists have discovered a new species living in New York's Central Park. The creature is a tiny centipede, just 10 millimeters long. But, in the world of science, this bug cuts a wide swath.
Had this new centipede been discovered in a tropical rain forest, it would not have made such waves. Dr. Kefyn Catley of Rutger's University said that it is not uncommon to discover four or five new species of invertebrate a day in the wild areas of the world. But in the middle of New York City?
"Here we are in the most used park on the planet, in the most exciting and heavily populated city on earth, New York. There are still unknown biodiversity at our feet," Ms. Cately said.
The centipede, dubbed Nannarup hoffmanni in honor of Dr. Richard Hoffman of the Virginia Museum of Natural History, actually constitutes a new genus. More specifically, a "monotypic" genus, meaning a genus containing only one species. It was found in collected "leaf litter," or piles of soil mixed with decomposing plant and tree leaves.
Dr. Elizabeth Johnson of the American Museum of Natural History has handled a Nannarup hoffmani. She said the centipede has 41 pairs of legs on its tiny frame. "The new centipede is less than an 2.54 cm long, maybe four tenths of an inch long. It is probably the smallest centipede that exists right now, and it's pale yellow," she said.
Dr. Johnson thinks that people should take news of the discovery as a signal to tread more lightly through New York City's best known park.
"There is a whole world under your feet. A whole world of these invertebrates, these decomposers. And you really need to respect their environment. Stay on trails if trails are designated, don't go off the paths so that you're not trampling the soil. If you're a park manager, make sure that you let the trees' branches and leaves, whatever natural debris falls to the ground, stay there. Don't manicure the park. Because you need to have this thick, rich layer of litter and decaying branches to help the forest actually continue to live," Dr. Johnson said.
Dr. Johnson's colleague, Dr. Kefyn Catley, goes further. He said the real message is that people need to tread more lightly on the planet.
According to Dr. Catley, 95 percent of the species on earth are unknown to science. Estimates put the number of undescribed species at anywhere from 15 to 100 million.
"Until these organisms are studied," he said, "we cannot know the complete story of how earth evolved. However, earth's extinction rate has gone up about 10,000 times over the last 200 years. Approximately 50,000 species go extinct every year," he said.
"We're starting to take pieces out of that very complex web of life not knowing what the effect will be when we remove one particular species out of an ecosystem. We don't know what the cascade effects are, except that we will weaken that ecosystem and that it will lead in some cases to collapse of ecosystems. When that happens, at the end of the road, is that it's going to affect us. Our food supply will be dwindled, our supply of medicines will close down," he said.
In the meantime, Dr. Catley is curious as to how this centipede got to Central Park. The only others like it are found in Asia. Scientists speculate that it might have been brought in with potted soil."
They remain tight-lipped, however, about how it is that a centipede, a word which means "100 feet", can have only 82.