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As autumn comes, a debate is brewing on social media platforms: to rake or not to rake? The tradition of clearing fallen leaves from our lawns is being reconsidered, thanks to insights from entomologists like Paul Marek at Virginia Tech. While the act of raking may contribute to a well-manicured lawn, leaving the leaves undisturbed can play a crucial role in supporting the intricate ecosystems beneath our feet.
Marek, a dedicated entomologist based in Blacksburg, emphasizes the importance of the unseen world beneath the ground. His research sheds light on the vital role that small bugs, particularly millipedes, play in breaking down leaves and aiding in the decomposition process. Marek affectionately refers to these creatures as the “little garbage men of the forest floor,” highlighting their essential role in maintaining the delicate balance of nature.
At Virginia Tech, Marek and his team are digitally archiving a vast collection of 400,000 insect specimens. Some of these specimens, collected over a century ago, serve as a historical record of insect populations that have since vanished due to deforestation. Simultaneously, discoveries are continually being made, exemplified by a recently identified blind millipede found in a developed area near Los Angeles. This discovery underscores the resilience and adaptability of these ancient creatures in the face of habitat loss.
Derek Hennen, a Virginia Tech graduate who studied under Marek, continues the legacy of millipede and centipede research. Hennen’s recent exploration atop Draper Mountain in Pulaski County led to the discovery of a red centipede and 16 different types of millipedes and centipedes, including a species previously unidentified in Blacksburg. This revelation reinforces the ongoing importance of studying and understanding these often-overlooked creatures.
As fall descends upon us, these small bugs become particularly active, relying on fallen leaves for both sustenance and shelter. For those who may cringe at the thought of centipedes and millipedes, it’s essential to recognize their ecological significance. Centipedes serve as a vital food source for birds and other animals, contributing to the intricate web of relationships within ecosystems. Meanwhile, millipedes play a crucial role in returning nutrients to the soil, fostering the growth of flowers and trees in the coming spring.
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