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Swiftie scientist names millipede species after Taylor Swift

Nannaria swiftae millipede
Scientists found the Nannaria swiftae millipede in Van Buren County, Tennessee. (Image credit: Derek Hennen)

Scientists have described a previously unknown species of millipede in the Appalachian Mountains — and named it after pop superstar Taylor Swift.

Researchers discovered the millipede, along with 16 other newly described millipede species, as part of an extensive research project to sequence the DNA of species in the Nannaria genus, known as twisted-claw millipedes, so-named for the twisted and flattened claws on their front legs. Experts analyzed 1,835 millipede specimens, most of which  they collected under leaf litter, trees and rocks, in forest habitats across 17 U.S. states, according to a new study. 

Derek Hennen, lead study author and a researcher at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia, is a fan of the American singer-songwriter Taylor Swift, and so he decided to name one of the millipede species Nannaria swiftae.  

"Her music helped me get through the highs and lows of graduate school, so naming a new millipede species after her is my way of saying thanks," Hennen said in a statement (opens in new tab)

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The researchers discovered N. swiftae, known by the common name "Swift twisted–claw millipede" in Van Buren County, Tennessee.

N. swiftae play a vital role in their ecosystem, by releasing nutrients into the soil of forest floors. As they eat decaying leaf litter, the millipedes break down the organic matter, aiding decomposition. Often these burrowing arthropods are completely buried in soil, making them challenging to find and capture, according to the researchers.  

Many of the species in the new study had previously been collected and preserved in museums and universities but had not yet been described scientifically, the study revealed.

All of the newly described species measure between 0.7 and 1.5 inches (18 and 38 millimeters) long, and have white legs and brown or black bodies spotted with red, white or orange. Features separating N. Swiftae from the very similar species N. austricola and N. scutellaria include bumps on the modified legs. 

Hennen named another of these newfound millipede species after a person: Nannaria marianae was named after his wife, Marian. 

Not all of the newly described Appalachian millipedes were named after people; some names reference specific plants that grew near specimen collection sites. These include N. liriodendra, named after tulip trees (Liriodendron tulipifera), and N. rhododendra, after rhododendrons, Hennen explained in an April 15 tweet (opens in new tab).  

"Thanks to the plants, these millipedes have great habitat to live in," Hennen said in the tweet.

With the naming of N. swiftae, Taylor Swift joins a select group of musicians with animal namesakes, including Lady Gaga (whose namesake is a treehopper from Nicaragua named Kakaia gaga), Elton John (a shrimplike crustacean named Leucothoe eltoni) and Shakira (a parasitic wasp named Aleiodes shakirae). 

The findings were published April 15, 2022 in the journal ZooKeys (opens in new tab).

Originally published on Live Science.

Ailsa is a staff writer for How It Works (opens in new tab) magazine, where she writes science, technology, history, space and environment features. Based in the U.K., she graduated from the University of Stirling (opens in new tab) with a BA (Hons) journalism degree. Previously, Ailsa has written for Cardiff Times magazine, Psychology Now and numerous science bookazines. Ailsa's interest in the environment also lies outside of writing, as she has worked alongside Operation Wallacea (opens in new tab) conducting rainforest and ocean conservation research.