Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Centipedes Creep Me Out

A large back and yellow centipede crawling out of a grey tennis shoe with white bottoms. There is a white pair next to it.
I live in a place where rattlesnakes, scorpions and tarantulas are common, and they do not bother me at all. But the other day I came across a centipede and that triggered some kind of primeval revulsion in me. They always do - it’s all those little legs and all that squirming around…..I just can’t. I know I’m not alone in this (here are some interesting thoughts as to just why we find them so gross), so I really don’t understand how these arthropods have managed to avoid being part of Halloween lore of creepy creatures. I‘m adding them to my list for sure. So, in celebration of their Halloween, here’s a little something about these creepy crawlers.

A view of a black and yellow centipede from the side.
First of all, there are centipedes and there are millipedes, and while they are both pretty yucky, they have some interesting differences. As their names imply, centipedes have fewer legs than millipedes – one per body segment as opposed to two. Although millipedes have twice as many legs, they are slow-moving burrowers, while centipedes scurry around rapidly. This difference in their movements is down to centipedes being carnivorous and predatory while millipedes feed on decaying organic matter and roots in soil. Millipedes are generally considered beneficial creatures (albeit still creepy), while centipedes are the ones who have venom and can (and will) bite. For more on their differences, check out this article

An upside-down yellow-orange centipede. The segmented body, legs, head and antenna are on display.

Let’s talk about those legs: First of all,  the word “centipede” would indicate one hundred legs with that the root word of “cent” while “millipede” would indicate one thousand, but that is not accurate. According to this article, centipedes have up to 382, while millipedes have between 40 and 400. Also, they don’t start out with all they end up with – they grow additional legs as they mature. And they can drop a leg to escape a predator (like some lizards do with their tails) and grow it back later. They have an abundance of legs, but they actually use different ones for specific purposes. For instance, centipedes carry their venom in the two legs right by their heads (these forcipules are legs and fangs all in one and are unique to centipedes). They jump on their prey and insert the venom while using some of their legs to completely encircle their victim. Meanwhile, other legs are maintaining their grip on whatever surface the centipedes are hunting from.

a grey and black centipede in a den wrapped around a horde of white baby centipedes.
Often the creepiest things about the animal world are the mating rituals therein (and, yes, I include humans in this statement), and centipedes are no exception. Except that it appears their genders don’t even want to be near each other; they have developed reproduction without copulation. In most centipede species, males create a web that they deposit their sperm in, after which  females get into it and absorb the sperm to fertilize their eggs. Depending on the species, the females then either deposit their eggs in the ground and leave or stick around to care for and protect their offspring.

A blue and yellow South African centipede amongst dirt and pebbles.
There are somewhere around 3,300 species of centipedes in the world, and they come in an array of colors and sizes. Centipedes are generally black or dark, reddish-brown with yellow legs, but they can also be orange, blue, yellow or purple in parts (check out this Google search to see some of them). If they weren’t so darn creepy, some varieties could be considered pretty (and probably are by people more tolerant than I).

A house centipede in a white sink next to a drain.
One of the most common varieties of centipedes is the House Centipede. These guys are small, look like a combination between a spider and a centipede, and are often found lurking in drains. If you come across one don't kill it; it's busy hunting insects that you really don't want in your house like roaches, flies and termites. While House Centipedes are pretty common, on the other end of the centipede spectrum is the uncommon Waterfall Centipede (Scolopendra cataracta). These natives of Southeast Asia were not even discovered by scientists until 2001. Despite their large size (about 8 inches), they stayed off the radar because they prefer to hide and hunt in and under water - especially around waterfalls. These elusive centipedes can run along the bottom underwater, which is definitely creepy. Here's more on them. 

A male Oriental Pied Hornbill sitting on a branch with a centipede in its mouth.

If small centipedes can cause visceral reactions, large ones are the stuff of nightmares. And they can
get really big. The winner for being the largest is the Peruvian Giant Yellow-Leg Centipede 
(Scolopendra gigantea). This intimidating creature can grow as long as 12 inches and can easily take down prey more than fifteen times its size. These guys seem to be fearless (which makes them even more intimidating) – scientists have observed them hanging from ceilings in caves while feasting on bats. These centipedes are native to South America and the Caribbean, but they have been introduced to the world at large for the pet trade. Needless to say, keeping these large venomous animals is not a great idea. When it comes to centipedes this large, the bite can not only cause all sorts of problems, it can also be fatal. For more on keeping centipedes (including the pertinent warnings), check out this article. And if you want to see a man (unwisely) handling a ginormous centipede, here’s a video

A beige centipede lunging out of the dirt and striking a fish swimming by.

One more thing: Even if you find centipedes as creepy as I do, please don’t kill them just because you don’t like the way they look. They have their spot in the ecosystem and have the right to live happy centipede lives.

Take Care.

Submitted by Pam


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