The word centipede immediately conjures up an image of a creature with lots and lots of legs – well 100 to be precise – the very name centipede means exactly that: 100 legs; but here’s the thing, centipedes never have 100 legs! Maybe someone thought there were too many to count, so took a wild guess and decided that 100 sounded about right. The truth is, centipedes can have as few as 30 legs or as many as 350! But as they have an odd number of pairs of legs, they can never have that magic 100!
Still, that’s a lot of legs to trip over! Well, they have an answer to that, because each leg is slightly longer than the one in front, helping to achieve that nifty footwork.
These guys date way, way, back, showing up on the fossil record some 400 million years ago – being some of the first creatures to take up that ground hunting niche. They’ve proved to be incredibly adaptive, occupying a vast array of different habitats, some even braving the icy cold of the Artic! They can now claim to have 8,000 species in their number.
Centipedes tend to be creatures of the night, preferring to operate after dark, being mainly nocturnal. This means they don’t have (or need) great eyesight, instead they use their antennae and long back legs to feel their way along.
Centipedes are carnivores, which means they need some way of catching their prey – this would be by giving the unlucky victim a venomous bite with some modified claws that act as fangs (nice!) On the lunch menu will be insects, spiders, slugs and worms – most centipedes aren’t fussy eaters, being generalists, they’re happy to take what’s on offer. They are useful in that they do prey on what we consider pests eg cockroaches – so even though they’ may not be what everyone thinks of as pretty, they do have a raison d’etre.
On the other side of the coin, centipedes are seen as a tasty snack by rodents, reptiles, beetles, snakes and even us (each to their own…) To help them avoid getting eaten, centipedes can put those multiple legs at their disposal, showing a fair turn of speed; they also have the ability to secrete toxic substances from glands on their undersides to help put off any would-be diner; they can even choose to leave a few legs behind them, being able to regenerate more during a moult and if all that doesn’t work, of course, there’s that bite to use as a means of defence.
On the subject of biting, there’s good news and bad news: the bad news is that certain large centipedes are capable of delivery a painful bite to a human: the good news is that this is very rarely fatal, although it can cause anaphylactic reaction in susceptible individuals – so best to give them a wide berth…
Speaking of large centipedes, the biggest species in the world is the Scolopendra Gigantia – the record holder for the largest one to date is an uncomfortably long 10 inches (25cm) – definitely one to steer clear of! The prize for the tiniest specimen goes to Hoffman’s Dwarf centipede, measuring just 0.4 inch (1cm).
As well as the popular conception that centipedes have 100 legs, there is also the question about the difference between a millipede and a centipede – so how can we tell them apart? After all, they are close cousins, both being arthropods and belonging to the Diplopoda class – but there are differences..
For starters, I think they look quite different – to me millipedes are more attractive (sorry centipedes) with pleasingly rounded bodies and smaller legs. In fact, they have two pairs of legs per body segment instead of the one that centipedes have (hence the name millipede implying a thousand legs, which obviously they don’t have – it’s between 40 to 400). Millipedes are also herbivores – so no venomous bite from these guys to worry about. They also tend to favour burrow and crevice dwelling, whereas their more confident cousins, like to strut their stuff, running around after prey.
When it comes to mating, female centipedes don’t like to get too friendly and typically the males leave them a package to collect, which they use to fertilise their eggs. The eggs are then buried and hatch in a few months’ time. As the young grow, they moult as they become larger – growing more legs with each moult; centipedes continue to moult during their lives and as mentioned, this gives them an ability to grow any missing limbs back as required.
Although not known for their bright colours, there are one or two who like to stand out in a crowd, with some being bright yellow, red or even blue. These tend to be the tropical variety and whilst these bright colours are pleasing, it’s worth bearing in mind that they are nature’s warning to steer clear!
All in all, I guess these guys are not maybe the prettiest critters going, but they definitely give it 100 percent!