Insect (relative) Insight: Centipedes and Millipedes


May 30, 2008
574 Views

This month, I’d like to shed some light on two of our favorite insect relatives – both of which are often misidentified, misunderstood, and all together mixed up. The time has come to clear up some misconceptions about these very long, many-legged creatures. Laurie and I are often suprised at how many people don’t know the difference between a centipede and a millipede, and we feel it is very important.

Centipedes and Millipedes are Arthropods which which belong to a group called myriapods, meaning “many legs.” They can be found in all different types of environments on nearly every continent on the globe. Both have bodies consisting of a head, which bears chewing mouthparts, and a long trunk made up of several segments. That is where the similarities end.

redhead1-resize.jpeg

Sonoran Centipede (Scolopendra heros)

The word Centipede litterally means “one hundred feet”. In reality, they can have anywhere between 30 and 346 legs with one pair of legs per body segment.

A Centipede’s legs originate from the side of their flattened body, which helps them move quite swiftly. They are nocturnal predators that spend their days hiding under rocks or logs. During the night they emerge to hunt for their prey, which consists of mostly small insects and other bugs, however, some larger centipedes may be able to take down frogs, lizards, or even mice!

Centipedes have a pair of poison fangs directly beneath the head which they use to inject venom and paralyze their prey. They rarely bite humans, but will do so to protect themselves if handled. Most centipedes are of little concern because they are very small with mild venom.

In Texas, however, we do have the giant sonoran centipede, Scolopendra herosThis centipede can reach 6 inches in length and has sizeable jaws that pack quite a punch. The venom can cause  enough pain and swelling to land you in the hospital and can be very dangerous to small children or individuals that are sensitive to insect toxins. The best idea is never to handle a centipede of any size. Here at the Cockrell Butterfly Center, we have 3 giant centipedes: Sonny, Steve, and Sam, who are all on display. They’re fun to watch and take care of and I’ve been working with them for a very long time so I know how to handle them and have never been bitten (knock on wood.)

bow-032-resize.jpg

Giant African Millipede

Millipedes on the other hand, are at the opposite end of the spectrum. These gentle creatures have a rounded body much like a worm. The word “millipede” means “one thousand legs.” They don’t really have that many, but for each segment on a millipede’s body, there are two pairs of legs. These guys can have anywhere from 80 to 400 legs! Millipedes are harmless detritivores which move very slowly. They live in the soil and feed on decaying organic matter and sometimes the roots and stems of small seedlings.

Their main defense is to roll themselves into a tight ball covering their more vulnerable parts. Some species can also emit a foul-smelling defensive liquid which is not usually harmful to humans.

Our native millipedes are very small, but some, such as the Giant African Millipede, can reach 12 inches in length and live up to 7 years. We have about 7 Giant African Millipedes, 4 of our largest are on diplay. Millie, goes to schools with us for our Bugs on Wheels program. The children have called her everything from a snake, to a worm, to a snail, to a caterpillar, and of course, a centipede.

Well, I hope you’ll find this helpful next time you see one our funny long-bodied friends, and come and see our giants on display in the Brown Hall of Entomology.

Erin M
Authored By Erin M Mills

Erin Mills received her undergraduate degree in Entomology from Texas A&M University in 2004, and after a short tour of the pest control industry, joined HMNS as the Cockrell Butterfly Center's Insect Zoo Manager in 2005. Over the years she expanded the butterfly center's live arthropod collection, developed the ever popular "Bugs on Wheels" outreach program, and continued to establish her role as HMNS's insect expert. In October of 2016, she achieved her long time goal of becoming Director of the Cockrell Butterfly Center. She is constantly striving to improve the butterfly center and how it serves and educates the public about the wonderful and amazing world of insects! As a Board Certified Entomologist, Erin has extensive knowledge of insect identification, ecology, plant relationships, husbandry, really any insect-related topic!

4 responses to “Insect (relative) Insight: Centipedes and Millipedes”

  1. AJ Schlott says:

    This website rocks!! SO AWESOME!!!!! The frogs and spiders are the best!!!

  2. Durotimi says:

    Thanks people.now i know more about milli and centipede.welldone.

    regards.

  3. I have a question for you, I am hoping you can answer it for me, In nature, which insects name is derived from a word meaning “one hundred legs”. Thank you

  4. Erin M. says:

    Hi Helen,

    Well, as stated in the article above, the word centipede means “one hundred legs”, but These are not insects. They are related arthropods in a separate class.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Become An HMNS Member

With a membership level for everyone; Don't just read about it, see it.

View All Membership Levels

Editor's Picks Creature Feature: Yellow Tiger Longwing 5 Of The Most Magical Objects at HMNS We Don’t Mean To Bug You, But We Have To Tell You About Our Awesome Entomology Collection! My Favorite Part About Camp! Unwrapping HMNS: An Interview With A Gladiator May Pixel Party Recap: What Happens When You Let A Bunch Of Expert Photographers Loose At HMNS?
Follow And Subscribe

Equally Interesting Posts




HMNS at Hermann Park

5555 Hermann Park Dr.
Houston,Texas 77030
(713) 639-4629


Get Directions Offering varies by location
HMNS at Sugar Land

13016 University Blvd.
Sugar Land, Texas 77479
(281) 313-2277


Get Directions Offering varies by location
George Observatory

21901 FM 762 Rd.
Needville, Texas 77461
(281) 242-3055

Hours
Tuesday - Saturday By Reservation
Saturdays 3:00PM - 10:00PM
Saturdays (DST) 3:00PM - 11:00PM
DST = Daylight Savings Time.
Please call for holiday hours. Entry to Brazos Bend State Park ends at 9:30 p.m. daily
Get Directions Offering varies by location

Stay in the know. Join our mailing list.