Centipedes Centipedes (Class Chilopoda) are fast-moving, venomous, predatory, terrestrial arthropods that have long bodies and many jointed legs. Centipedes are found primarily in tropical climates, however, they are also widely distributed in temperate zones. Despite their name ‘centipede’ (which means ‘100 legs’), all centipedes do not have 100 legs. Centipedes are invertebrates meaning ‘without a backbone or spinal column’.

Centipede Characteristics

Centipedes have a hard exoskeleton and jointed legs.

Like the millipedes, centipedes are highly segmented (15 to 177 segments), but with only one pair of walking legs per segment (millipedes have two legs per segment).

The head of a centipede has a pair of antennae, jaw-like mandibles (called forcipules) and other mouthparts. The most anterior trunk segment of a centipede has a pair of venomous claws (called maxillipedes) that are used for both defence and for capturing and paralyzing prey. The bite of a smaller centipede in temperate areas may be similar to a bee sting, but the bite of a larger tropical species is excruciatingly painful, leaving two black puncture wounds as much as a centimetre apart.

A common centipede is the house centipede (Scutigera forceps), which is about 5 centimetres (2 inches) long and has 15 pairs of legs. Some centipedes glow in the dark (like the Geophilus electricus).

About 20 families and 3,000 species of centipedes have been discovered worldwide.

Centipede colours vary from pale yellow through to deep brown. Their bodies are always dorso-ventrally flattened. Although, like all arthropods, centipedes are covered with a tough outer coat, however they do not have a waterproof layer and stay in moist areas where there is no danger of drying up.

Centipede Habitat

Many centipedes live in the soil and leaf litter, while those that hunt freely on the ground are strictly nocturnal and spend the day hiding under logs and stones where they can keep moist. They live on land in moist microhabitats (under rocks and logs, in leaf debris, or occasionally in burrows).

Centipede Predators

Centipedes come under attack from various other animals such as birds, toads and shrews as well as humans, if they are accidentally trodden on. (Some people also eat centipedes).

Fierce Centipedes

There are some rather fierce centipedes living on the planet such as the ‘Giant Redheaded Centipede’. They are fast moving and very aggressive. They are about 6 inches long but some can be 8 inches long. They can be found in the rocky woodlands in Arkansas and other southern parts of America. (Fortunately, not in the UK).

Unfortunately, these aggressive centipedes can be rather dangerous. It was once witnessed in the 1920’s, an officer being injected by a centipede with poisonous venom from one of these ‘Redheaded Centipedes’ and actually dying after developing an infection. It is hard to believe that these little crawly things that resemble the innocent caterpillar can bite.

It is very rare to be bitten by centipedes and like most animals, will only bite in self defence. However, if you are bitten by a centipede, the following procedure may be of help:

Place some ice wrapped in a small towell or other suitable cloth on the site of the bite for 10 minutes and then take it off for 10 minutes. Repeat this process. If the patient has circulatory problems, decrease the time to prevent possible damage to the skin.

Before Calling Emergency Services:

Determine the following information:

* the patients age, weight and health condition
* the identity of the centipede if possible
* the time of the bite

Centipede Diet

Centipedes are carnivores (meat-eaters), they use venom to kill their prey. The venom comes from glands that open near the first pair of modified legs (which act as poisonous fangs). Their bite can be painful to a human but not lethal in general.

Centipedes eat insects, earthworms, spiders, slugs and other small animals.

The largest species of centipede is ‘Scolopendra gigantea’ which can grow to be about 12 inches long and 1 inch wide and is found in Central America.

Centipede Reproduction

Male centipedes spin a small web onto which they deposit a spermatophore (a capsule or mass created by males of various invertebrate species, containing spermatozoa) for the female to take up. Sometimes there is a courtship dance and sometimes the males just leave them for the female centipedes to find. In temperate areas egg laying occurs in spring and summer but in subtropical and tropical areas there appears to be little seasonality to centipede breeding.

The Lithobiomorpha, and Scutigeromorpha species lay their eggs singly in holes in the soil, the female fills the hole in on the egg and leaves it. The young usually hatch with only 7 pairs of legs and gain the rest in successive molts. Scutigera coleoptera, the American house centipede, hatches with only 4 pairs of legs and has successive molts before becoming a mature adult. It takes about 3 years for some species to achieve adulthood, however, like millipedes, centipedes are relatively long-lived when compared to their insect cousins. Some can live for 5 or 6 years.

Other centipede female species show far more parental care, the eggs 15 to 60 in number are laid in a nest in the soil or in rotten wood, the female stays with the eggs, guarding and licking them to protect them from fungi. The female in some species stays with the young after they have hatched, guarding them until they are ready to leave. If disturbed the females tend to either abandon the eggs or young or to eat them.