‘It’s really pretty’ — Va. researcher names bug after Taylor Swift

A Virginia entomologist identified a new bug, and when it came time to give it a name, he thought of one of his favorite musicians.

Derek Hennen, now with the Virginia Department of Agriculture, was researching at a lab at Virginia Tech on “a genus called the twisted claw millipede” when he and fellow entomologists Jackson Means and Paul Marek identified 17 new species in the Appalachians, he said.

Hennen said Swift’s music was comforting after long, unsuccessful days out hunting for specimens: “On the drive back, put on a Taylor Swift CD. And she pretty much has a song for every emotion.”

The newly described twisted-claw millipede Nannaria swiftae. (Courtesy Derek Hennen)

He added, “I was thinking, it’d be really fun to name a species after her if we find enough. And that was not a problem. We had so many undescribed species to name.”

So when he found one in Tennessee, he said, “Well, you know, she used to live in Tennessee. And maybe at one point, she was walking through the woods, and could have been at one of these places where they live.”

So he named it Nannaria swiftae — the Swift Twisted-claw millipede.

Millipedes such as the one he named after the pop composer have great value to the ecosystem as what Hennen called “really great decomposers.” They eat dead plant matter and “open up those nutrients to be used by other organisms in the ecosystem.”

He compared them to “little tractors running through the leaf litter, recycling the plant material to open up all these nutrients” and called them unsung heroes of the ecosystem: “We don’t think about all these tiny litter critters that are out there.”

Also, he said, they’re pretty and they smell nice.

“It’s kind of this nice, shiny, chestnut brown and black color, and then down the sides of the body on each segment, it has these nice orange spots on it,” he said, and their chemical defense system gives off a “cherry or almond smell.”

Millipedes play an important role in the echo system

Hennen hopes the result of his bringing together two of his passions can help inspire others to take a closer look at the nature that they have around them.

“Everybody’s coming together for this millipede, which is really cool to see,” he said. “I hope that encourages people to give a second thought to all the little bugs out there that they may not have known about before and kind of have a new appreciation for them.”

Researchers consider it an honor to have something named after them, and Hennen hopes Swift does too.

“I hope she likes it. I hope it puts a smile on her face,“ he said.

WTOP’s Michelle Basch contributed to this report.

Kristi King

Kristi King is a veteran reporter who has been working in the WTOP newsroom since 1990. She covers everything from breaking news to consumer concerns and the latest medical developments.

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