A new millipede species has been discovered in the south-eastern US and is the most colourful ever found. But the creature's striking patterns are not simply for show. In fact, they are a warning to any potential predators to keep their distance.

This is because Apheloria polychroma - as the millipede has been named - contains enough hydrogen cyanide in its body to kill eighteen pigeon-sized birds. The poison is stored in special glands and can be secreted into its shell when the millipede feels threatened.

As a result of its staggering toxicity, Apheloria polychroma can be found in a wide variety of colour patterns - usually, a black body dotted with spots of different colours and red or yellow legs.

It was discovered in southwestern Virginia's Cumberland Mountains by researcher Paul Marek from Virginia Tech, who has described his finding in a paper published in the journal Zootaxa.

The new species has been given the common name 'Colourful Cherry Millipede' in reference to the odour given off by one of the components of the cyanide in its glands.

The use of cyanide compounds, and other chemicals, is actually a fairly common defence mechanism in millipedes, with some species secreting them when under attack, while others actively spray predators with toxins. Unlike most creatures, millipedes are immune to the effects of cyanide.

The new study also found that other millipedes may have evolved similar colouration to Apheloria polychroma in order to take advantage of the animal's toxic reputation.

Millipedes provide a crucial service to the forest floor, feeding on decaying vegetation and excreting the nutrients they do not need. This excrement subsequently becomes food for numerous microorganisms, fungi and plants.