Giant millipedes as long as cars roamed northern England, fossil reveals

Largest ever specimen, a 2.7 meter-long creature known as Arthropleura, discovered by ‘fluke’ on UK beach.

A section of Arthropleura’s exoskeleton was found by a ‘fluke’ on Howick beach by a Cambridge University scientist. Photograph: Neil Davies/PA

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Last modified on 2021 Dec 21

Giant millipedes as long as a car and weighing 50kg once hunted across northern England, experts have revealed, following the discovery of a 326m-year-old fossil.

The largest fossil of a giant millipede was found by a “fluke” on a Northumberland beach at Howick, after a section of cliff fell on to the shore.

In order to get so big, the creature, known as Arthropleura, must have found a nutrient-rich plant diet and may even have been a predator, feasting on other invertebrates or small amphibians.

Illustration issued by Cambridge University of what Arthropleura looked like
Illustration issued by Cambridge University of what Arthropleura looked like. Photograph: JW Schneider/TU Bergakademie Freiberg/PA

The specimen is made up of multiple articulated exoskeleton segments, broadly similar in form to modern millipedes. It is only the third such fossil to be discovered and is also the oldest and largest.

Experts believe the fossil represents a section of the creature’s exoskeleton that it shed near a riverbed, which was preserved by sand.

The segment is about 75cm long, leading scientists to believe its entire body could have measured about 2.7 meters long and weighed 50kg.

The remains of the creature date from the Carboniferous period, more than 100m years before the age of dinosaurs.

At the time, Great Britain lay near the equator and enjoyed warm temperatures.

A former PhD student who was walking along the coast in January 2018 spotted it in a large block of sandstone that had fallen from the cliff.

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Dr Neil Davies, from Cambridge University’s department of earth sciences and the lead author of a paper on the fossil, said: “It was a complete fluke of a discovery. The way the boulder had fallen, it had cracked open and perfectly exposed the fossil, which one of our former PhD students happened to spot when walking by.”

The fossil was removed with permission of Natural England and the landowners, the Howick Estate, and was taken to Cambridge for analysis.

It was so big it required four people to carry it.

Davies said: “While we can’t know for sure what they ate, there were plenty of nutritious nuts and seeds available in the leaf litter at the time, and they may even have been predators that fed off other invertebrates and even small vertebrates such as amphibians.”

The creatures crawled around the equatorial region for about 45m years, before going extinct, possibly due to global warming that made the climate too dry for them, or due to the rise of reptiles, who outcompeted them for food.

The fossil will go on public display at Cambridge’s Sedgwick Museum in the new year.

The results are reported in the Journal of the Geological Society.


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