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The little yellow or red-brown creatures known to science as Lithobiomorpha may not look like much, but they are living records of Australia's ancient natural history.

Paralamyctes prendinii
A species of stone centipede, Paralamyctes prendinii, from South America. Image: G Giribet
© Australian Museum

The common name for Lithobiomorpha is 'stone centipede', and almost every species found on the continents of the Southern Hemisphere belong to one prehistoric family, the Henicopidae.

The continents of the Southern Hemisphere were once pieces of one great land, the supercontinent known as 'Gondwana', which began splitting apart in the Jurassic Period, some 160 million years ago. The divided pieces of Gondwana became separated by vast oceans, and their biota (plant and animal life) evolved in isolation.

Researchers at the Australian Museum use genetics and anatomy to explore the evolution of stone centipedes in Australia and their links with those that live on the other continents that were once part of Gondwana. Australian stone centipedes are remarkably similar to closely related species of Henicopidae found in New Zealand, Argentina and Chile.

Despite the long period since Gondwana separated and the great oceans isolated them, the stone centipedes of the southern continents still bear a strong family resemblance. Australia's stone centipedes are 'living fossils' - links to the past which reveal just how ancient our forest biota really is.