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Leaving the leaves can protect the tiniest animals in your yard

Millipedes and centipedes
Derek Hennen
On a hike in Pulaski County, Derek Hennen found over a dozen different species of centipedes and millipedes. Many are so small, they're barely visible with the naked eye. This is a photo he made after processing dirt he collected on Draper Mountain.

There are several videos trending on social media, centered around an autumnal debate: whether to rake up your leaves, or keep them on the ground. Raking may help your lawn, but leaving your leaves can help some of the tiniest animals in your backyard.

Virginia Tech entomologist, Paul Marek, spends a lot of time looking under the earth.

“Where we’re at now, even if you just look below your feet, there is this whole world,” said Marek, who is based in Blacksburg.

Now that it’s fall, many small bugs, like millipedes, get to work breaking down leaves and helping them decompose into soil.

“I kind of like to think of them as little garbage men of the forest floor,” Marek said.

Marek and his team have been digitizing a collection of insects at Virginia Tech with 400,000 specimens. Some were collected over a hundred years ago, many of which have since ceased to exist in Virginia, as forests have been cut down.

There are also new species still being discovered, as he and a team of researchers recently found in a developed area of California, near Los Angeles. They discovered a newly identified millipede that lives beneath the surface and is completely blind. Millipedes are some of the oldest known terrestrial animals on the planet, and though they are vulnerable to habitat loss, the discovery in California reveals just how resilient and adaptive they can be.

Entomologists in Virginia are also adding to the knowledge of these small bugs. On a recent afternoon atop Draper Mountain, in Pulaski County, Derek Hennen spotted a red centipede, scurrying in the dirt.

“Oh there’s a nice big one,” Hennen said, crouching down to collect the centipede. “That’s a beautiful one.”

Hennen studied at Virginia Tech with Marek. After graduating, he’s continued to research millipedes and centipedes. Fall, he said, is a great time to spot them,

On this one trail, Hennen found 16 different types of millipedes and centipedes, including one that has only been identified in Blacksburg, so this day’s work resulted in a new discovery.

Many millipedes depend on leaves for food and shelter this time of year.

Even if you’re not a fan of these bugs, consider this: centipedes are food for birds and other animals. And millipedes help put nutrients back into the dirt, which helps flowers and trees bloom next spring.

Updated: November 15, 2023 at 4:06 PM EST
Editor's Note: Radio IQ is a service of Virginia Tech.

Roxy Todd is Radio IQ's New River Valley Bureau Chief.