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Ever wanted to look at a millipede’s genitals?

Thanks to 3-D modeling, now you can

Brian Metscher

Scientists discovered a new species of millipede in Spain — and thanks to 3D imaging, they didn't have to cut it open to see how it works.

The millipede in question is a humble species that the researchers named Ommatoiulus avatar — in honor of its digital twin. It's "one of thousands of new species being discovered every year all over the world," says Brian Metscher, a biologist at the University of Vienna and a co-author of the study, published today in Plos One. In other words, this millipede isn't all that special — but describing an interesting new species wasn't the point of the study. Rather, the researchers wanted to show that 3D imaging can serve as a great taxonomic tool.

Scientists can take a good look at this animal's genitals

The avatar was generated by taking multiple X-ray images of the millipede at different angles and then combining them. This means that the scientists didn't have to cut the specimens open. That’s an important step, because the distinguishing characteristics for millipedes are mainly in the male genitalia — which can be found inside the animal, Metscher says. Today’s technique means that scientists can take a good look at this animal's genitals, without having to destroy valuable samples.

To illustrate his point, Metscher points out that the real specimens "are safe" — intact, though not alive — "in the curatorial care of the Vienna and Copenhagen Museums."