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‘A lucky accident’: How a new species of millipede was named after a Floyd County artist

‘And there’s still more to be discovered’

Nannaria stellaradix first discovered in Floyd County
Nannaria stellaradix first discovered in Floyd County (Dr. Jackson Means / Ruth Neumann)

FLOYD COUNTY, Va. – Of all the creatures and things in the world, having a millipede named after yourself isn’t something a lot of people think about. It seems like a once-in-a-lifetime deal, but it happened to one Floyd County woman.

That woman is Ruth Neumann, an artist and musician more commonly known as Starroot.

As crazy as it sounds, it’s not so peculiar for something like this to happen to Starroot, someone who loves and appreciates nature and just so happens to live in the beautiful valleys of Floyd County.

Starroot with her art (Starroot)

The story begins back in April 2014 when Tony DiMeglio, a Virginia Tech graduate student at the time who studied termites, was examining her land for research.

“He asked, ‘Can I bring my friend from Virginia Tech? He’s a researcher on millipedes. Because you might have interesting land for him to search,’” Starroot recalled.

Of course, Starroot said yes, and in comes Dr. Jackson Means, who has dedicated his career to learning about millipedes.

While he was working towards his Ph.D. at Virginia Tech, he picked up a revision on a genus of millipedes called Nannaria that was started in the 1960s by the late Dr. Richard Hoffman, a former curator at the Virginia Museum of Natural History.

Means said he found Hoffman’s collection at Virginia Tech and borrowed it to continue studying more about Nannaria. He referred to it as the “impetus” of all this.

“They are a group of millipedes that are small and not well studied at all. There are tons of species all throughout the Appalachians and there were only 18 species known and after my revision, I added another 35 species and another two in a different paper,” Means said. “And there’s still more to be discovered.”

In October 2014, Means and DiMeglio took a visit to Starroot’s property, which was full of untampered land with various insects and arthropods yet to be discovered.

“I was just interested in collecting anywhere because these things are flightless, they’re blind, they have been in these spots and gullies for millennia,” Means recalled. “The thing is, Starroot’s property was totally new. Hoffman didn’t have any of those in his collection, so that was a lucky accident.”

Means, a myriapodologist who now works at the Virginia Museum of Natural History, successfully discovered a new species of Nannaria while on Starroot’s property.

A photo of Starroot's property in Floyd County (Starroot)

“He came to my land and roamed around some hours and he thought he discovered a new species but said it could take years,” Starroot said.

Sure enough, the completion of the Nannaria revision took nearly seven years since more and more species of this genus were found.

Since it was found on her land, he decided to name the new species after Starroot: Nannaria stellaradix. Means said he named it after her contribution in allowing the discovery to happen in the first place.

“When [Dr. Jackson Means] contacted me and was like, ‘Really, we have the new species,’ I screamed to my husband because I was really out of myself because I never really expected this to come true. I never thought a new species would be found on my land!” she explained.

Starroot, who comes from a German family full of doctors and scientists, said she was shocked at the news but wildly excited it was happening.

The first thing she did when she found out a new millipede species was going to be named after her? She emailed her family.

“I instantly emailed them and I said, ‘I have nothing to do with science, but guess what happened? And they just couldn’t believe it,” she said. “I was so different from them! They’re all scientists, and I was the only artist, musician, therapist in the family.”

The musician said her brother, who is a dragonfly expert, was just as excited and joked that he should switch his focus to researching millipedes.

Even as months have passed since Starroot found out she has a new millipede species named after her, the enthusiasm she has for this discovery has not worn off.

“There’s so much nature in Floyd and the Blue Ridge Mountains with not much destroyed,” Starroot said. “And the millipede has been researched, but not like this, not excessively. It takes people like Dr. Jackson Means to really do this research, and find them. It’s just amazing! I’m really impressed.”

“Starroot isn’t a scientist. She’s an artist, an incredibly talented artist, yet she clearly really values nature and science and what science can provide us,” Means said. “It’s just a great example of how citizen science can really help [scientists] out.”

To learn more about Nannaria stellaradix, click here.

About the Author:

Nicole Del Rosario joined WSLS 10 in August 2020.