Discovery of a glowing millipede in California and the gradual evolution of bioluminescence in Diplopoda

Paul E. Mareka, Wendy Moore

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

15 Scopus citations


The rediscovery of the Californian millipede Xystocheir bistipita surprisingly reveals that the species is bioluminescent. Using molecular phylogenetics, we show that X. bistipita is the evolutionary sister group of Motyxia, the only genus of New World bioluminescent millipedes. We demonstrate that bioluminescence originated in the group's most recent common ancestor and evolved by gradual, directional change through diversification. Because bioluminescence in Motyxia has been experimentally demonstrated to be aposematic, forewarning of the animal's cyanide-based toxins, these results are contrary to aposematic theory and empirical evidence that a warning pattern cannot evolve gradually in unpalatable prey. However, gradual evolution of a warning pattern is plausible if faint light emission served another function and was co-opted as an aposematic signal later in the diversification of the genus. Luminescence in Motyxia stem-group taxa may have initially evolved to cope with reactive oxygen stress triggered by a hot, dry environment and was repurposed for aposematism by high-elevation crown-group taxa colonizing new habitats with varying levels of predation. The discovery of bioluminescence in X. bistipita and its pivotal phylogenetic location provides insight into the independent and repeated evolution of bioluminescence across the tree of life.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)6419-6424
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number20
StatePublished - May 19 2015


  • Cyanide
  • Luminodesmus
  • Photoprotein
  • Polydesmida
  • Xystodesmidae

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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