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Portuguese invasion

I suppose that, in evolution’s daring script, the millipede has a role, but intense scrutiny has failed to reveal it to me, and it’s not as if I’ve lacked opportunity for research, because our house has been the Hindenburg Line to wave after wave of this many-footed army.

Before Christmas, with a few millipede scouts and guerrillas appearing on the verandah, I called in my mate Les, of Southern Flinders Pest Control (SFPC)—not to be confused with Ron Scholar, sole proprietor of the splendidly named Academic Pest Control, who, when we lived in Little River, would regularly rid our eaves of swarming bees. He would, no doubt, have obliterated academic pests too, if we’d reported them in any numbers. Anyway, Les of SFPC came straightaway, laid down a heavy artillery barrage, and the enemy subsided, patiently planning a major assault in cooler weather. 

It will not have escaped your notice that I’m referring here to Ommatoiulus moreletii, the Portuguese millipede, which, inspired no doubt by compatriots Vasco da Gama, Ferdinand Magellan and Bartolomeu Dias, made the long journey from its native shores to Western Australia in the 1980s and quickly colonised most of the other states. Whether it actually has a thousand legs may be still in doubt, but it is unquestionably well endowed in the matter of limbs, forelegs, hindlegs, ‘pins’ and general undercarriage support. Thus equipped, Ommatoiulus achieves a sort of gliding motion, like a Georgian dancer.

Remember the Georgian dancers? The women wore hooped dresses that just touched the floor and completely concealed their feet. They would cross the stage taking rapid, short, unseen steps. To the onlooker, they appeared to be on hidden wheels. Many of them, when their dancing careers ended, were employed by the BBC as Daleks in Dr Who—the Daleks, of course, being noteworthy not only for their obsessive desire to EXTERMINATE but also for sliding across the often visibly shuddering set as if on a cushion of air.

Dr Who first hit the television screen in 1963. Two years later, a mate of mine gathered together all his resources—well, he sold his battered FJ Holden and did a runner on the previous month’s rent—and sought acting fame in London. Within a few weeks he wrote to tell us of his stunning breakthrough—a job with BBC drama. The role, it turned out, was as a Dalek, but still it was a start. He left the BBC only because he felt that an acting career in which he never charged urgently up or swept splendidly down a staircase was perhaps too monochromatic. But I digress.

Ommatoiulus moreletii has a smooth black cylindrical body and proliferates in compost, leaf litter and mulch, where, helping—but only helping, note—to break down organic matter, it makes a thin and, in my view, highly contestable claim to be part of the great scheme of things. It enters houses for no reason that either it or the inhabitants understand. As an eater of mulchy matter, it finds no nourishment under domestic roofs and, along with hundreds of its mates, having invaded a house, it quickly dies in corners and under couches and mats.

But this is precisely why, as a domestic pest, the old Ommatoiulus is hard to combat. Its superior numbers are mitigated by confusions, ill direction and vague individualism in the ranks (in sharp contrast, for example, to ants); its physical presence is diminished by the tendentious nature of its claim to a place in the evolutionary parade. When millipedes come multi-legging their way under your doors and through hitherto unknown gaps in your castle’s defences, they don’t know why they’re there.

Likewise, potential predators become puzzled by the millipede’s apparent irrelevance, its palpable consciousness of its own irrelevance, and lose heart. European flies, developed specifically to attack and extinguish Ommatoiulus in South Australia, disappeared completely after their release and were never heard of again. Rhabditis necromena, a parasitical nematode, has had some success against millipedes but takes years to make an impact, as if undecided how to act. Obviously neither the European fly nor Rhabditis could cope with a prey so apparently uninformed about its place in the mysterious game of Nature. Natura naturans was the medieval phrase for this game: ‘nature naturing’. The secret of Ommatoiulus is: it refuses to nature.

Perhaps millipedes have come to recognise their ancestors’ immigration from Portugal as a terrible mistake and, consumed with atavism, are trying to return home. But all the evidence suggests a simpler explanation: millipedes don’t know what they are for. They are evolution’s senior moment.

This is good news for creationists. They should study Ommatoiulus moreletii and, above all, seek to find other species that, like Ommotoiulus, seem to have slipped below the evolutionary radar. If successful in this quest, they would gradually build a case against the logic of evolution and for the idea of a God playing with toys he has only recently returned his attention to after being so thoroughly pissed off by the erratic behaviour, just a few thousand years ago, of Adam and Eve.

Meanwhile, I fight on: with sprays, slippery surfaces, thick towels across doors. I will fight them on the verandah, I will fight them in the kitchen, I will fight them on the patio and in the toilets. I will never surrender.

LOOK OUT! Here they come again … 

Brian Matthews is a writer who also holds professorial positions at Victoria University, Melbourne, and Flinders University, South Australia. He lives in the Clare Valley, South Australia.



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