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Consumers and Decomposers

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Natural Medicine
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Natural Medicine

They can look a bit harmless, but millipedes produce some potent chemical cocktails.

I Think I'll Stick With Lotion

If you've ever had your head picked through for lice, you've have some experience with ectoparasites. These are parasites that live on the outside of other organisms and can cause quite a problem in schools. Fortunately for humans, if you have head lice, it's pretty much a matter of getting some medicine from the doctor and paying close attention to your hygiene. It's an inconvenience to be sure, but not that big of a deal. But what about other animals that have to deal with ectoparasites? They can't go to the doctor or pharmacy. Are they at the mercy of rampaging hoards of parasites? Not necessarily. There are some pretty shrewd organisms out there who have worked out their own solutions. Take the Black Lemurs (Eulemur macaco) of Madagascar, for instance.

Hmmm, what do you think these two are up to?

And in case you thought this behavior was exclusive to black lemurs, here's a red-bellied lemur (Eulemur rubriventer). Notice how this species eats the millipede and doesn't appear to be as intoxicated as the black lemur.

"No Duhs" and Head-Scratchers

If you need help scratching a mental itch, use the resources below:

  1. What do you make of the apparent difference in the effect of the toxins on the black lemur and the red-bellied lemur? Would you expect differences like this to exist between species or do you think maybe these are differences between individuals (meaning maybe this is a sensitive black lemur and/or a resistant red-bellied lemur)? What kinds of information would you need to gather to evaluate your hypothesis?
  2. Why do you think millipedes make this toxin? Remember, in general, chemicals like this are expensive for organisms to make, so they should have some strong benefit to the organism. Explain your thinking as fully as possible.
  3. Can you think of any way the millipede could acquire the toxin without making it? How might you test to see if this is the case?

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