Millipedes are tiny invertebrates with segmented bodies and a whole bunch of legs — that’s the reason we call them millipedes (the Latin root mille means “thousand”). No one’s ever seen a full thousand-footed arthropod scooting along a blank wall, though the leggiest millipede can top out at 750 – close enough to heart-stopping if you suffer from entomophobia.
Still, even something smaller like the innocuous-looking Black Portuguese millipede can have a titanic impact in sufficient numbers — say, causing one passenger train to crash into another.
That’s what happened in Western Australia on Tuesday, though the official cause of the crash has yet to be determined. But after the rear-end crash occurred, Reuters says “hundreds of the tiny creatures were found squashed in a slippery mess on the track.”
“Millipedes are one of the factors we are going to take into account,” David Hynes, a spokesman with the Public Transport Authority of Western Australia, told Reuters. It’s not clear how fast the moving train was traveling when it crashed into the stationary one, but six passengers were treated for neck stiffness.
The millipede theory involves other trains — how many, who knows — passing over millipede-infested section of the track and squashing them into a slimy-slick paste. Imagine…well, okay, don’t, but yes, traction definitely sounds like a problem if the pulverized millipede theory proves accurate.
Ommatoiulus moreletii – the Latin name for the Black Portuguese millipede — already has a reputation as an invasive pest. It was accidentally introduced to Australia in the 1950s, and according to Minibeast Wildlife, a site devoted to cataloguing Australian critters, the Portuguese millipede has no natural predators, thus it tends to breed in “plague numbers.” In 2002, the site writes, so many of the Portuguese millipedes clogged the rails between Melbourne and Ballart — about 70 miles apart — that 50 trains had to be suspended.
According to the site, “Few people would believe that such small animals could stop a train, but the mush and oils from millions of dead millipedes on the tracks caused the trains to loose [sic] traction, and the mess had to be cleaned off before services could resume!”