New Paper in Frontiers in Zoology

20.04.2021

When SEM becomes a deceptive tool of analysis: the unexpected discovery of epidermal glands with stalked ducts on the ultimate legs of geophilomorph centipedes

Sombke A, Müller CHG. 2021
Front Zool 18, 17 (2021). doi.org/10.1186/s12983-021-00402-3. Published online 20 April 2021

Abstract

Background
The jointed appendage is a key novelty in arthropod evolution and arthropod legs are known to vary enormously in relation to function. Among centipedes, the ultimate legs always are distinctly different from locomotory legs, and different centipede taxa evolved different structural and functional modifications. In Geophilomorpha (soil centipedes), ultimate legs do not participate in locomotion and were interpret to serve a sensory function. They can be sexually dimorphic and in some species, male ultimate legs notably appear “hairy”. It can be assumed that the high abundance of sensilla indicates a pronounced sensory function. This study seeks for assessing the sensory diversity, however, documents the surprising and unique case of an extensive glandular epithelium in the ultimate legs of three phylogenetically distant species.

Results
The tightly aggregated epidermal glands with stalked ducts – mistakenly thought to be sensilla – were scrutinized using a multimodal microscopic approach comprising histology as well as scanning and transmission electron microscopy in Haplophilus subterraneus. Hence, this is the first detailed account on centipede ultimate legs demonstrating an evolutionary transformation into a “secretory leg”. Additionally, we investigated sensory structures as well as anatomical features using microCT analysis. Contrary to its nomination as a tarsus, tarsus 1 possesses intrinsic musculature, which is an indication that this podomere might be a derivate of the tibia.

Discussion
The presence and identity of ultimate leg associated epidermal glands with stalked ducts is a new discovery for myriapods. A pronounced secretory as well as moderate sensory function in Haplophilus subterraneus can be concluded. The set of characters will improve future taxonomic studies, to test the hypotheses whether the presence of these specialized glands is a common feature in Geophilomorpha, and that tarsus 1 may be a derivate of the tibia. As the number of epidermal glands with stalked ducts is sexually dimorphic, their function might be connected to reproduction or a sex-specific defensive role. Our results, in particular the unexpected discovery of ‘glandular hairs’, may account for a striking example for how deceptive morphological descriptions of epidermal organs may be, if based on non-invasive techniques alone.