Giant African Millipedes are back!

Blog 103
Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1

Up until a few years ago, there was never any shortage of an amazing arthropod, known as the Giant African Millipede, around here. They are an absolutely breathtaking bug! Imagine a roly poly type of creature and add about 6-10 more inches of length and about 200-250 more legs! African millipedes (Archispirostreptus gigas) hold the title for the longest millipedes in the world. They are capable of reaching a length of 15.2 inches! They are sought after, not only for their size, but for their incredibly docile personality. They’re so cute and fun to watch! They make wonderful display animals because they spend most of their time above ground feeding and resting. They are voracious eaters and are often seen munching away at their food. They are a favorite among visitors. Volunteers enjoy handling them and giving our guests an up close and personal look. Unfortunately, we haven’t had them around here for a couple of years. The USDA halted the importation of these millipedes for a few reasons. You would only be able to acquire them if you had the appropriate permit, which we do, but finding a supplier was a huge challenge. After about two years missing them, we are happy to welcome them back!

One fast critter.
A Giant Centipede
Creative Commons License photo credit: graftedno1 

Millipedes are often confused with centipedes, another long, leggy arthropod. It is very important to know the difference because centipedes can be dangerous. The differences aren’t very subtle. Centipedes are morphologically similar; they have a head with one pair of antennae and a trunk made up of many segments. The major difference is in the legs. Centipedes (centi=100; pede=legs) have one pair of legs per body segment and the legs seem to originate from the sides of the body. Their legs are longer, thicker, and more muscular, allowing them to move very quickly. Their first pair of legs are modified and have become a pair of claws that are capable of injecting venom. All of these characteristics make them efficient predators that feed on anything from tiny insects to small mammals, depending on the size of the centipede of course. A very large centipede can harm a human with its potent venom. Small ones are not a threat. Like most arthropods, centipedes are shy and non-aggressive, but it’s important to know the difference so you don’t mistake one for a harmless millipede and try to handle it. Another feature that might give them away, if it’s difficult to see the legs, is a pair of appendages on their last segment. They resemble another set of antennae, possibly a defense mechanism to throw predators off of which side their head and poison claws are on. Millipedes don’t have these.

Millipedes are a diverse group of arthropods, ranging in size from 5 mm to 10 inches or more, like our giant African millipedes. Unlike centipedes, most eat decomposing organic matter. Their body segments are thinner and more numerous and each one bears 2 pairs of small legs. Although millipede means 1000 legs, the record is 375 pairs, or 750 legs! The legs originate from the bottom of the body so they cannot be seen from the top, like centipede’s legs. They are very slow moving. Their defense mechanisms are simple. First, they curl their bodies into a spiral to protect their legs. They can also secrete a chemical from pores along the sides of their bodies. This chemical varies from species to species, but it is meant to deter, gross out, or harm a would-be predator. Most of these chemicals are not harmful to people but will stain skin and clothes.  Once a millipede grows accustomed to being handled, they will not produce such secretions very often.

IMAG0063
Our new Millipedes
Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1 

We hope to have our new batch of African millipedes around for a long time. This is highly probable considering that they are very easy to care for and they can live about 5 to 7 years as adults. If you would like to see these incredible millipedes on display, come on by! Unlike some of our shy residents, these are always visible to the public! You can always keep an eye out for their smaller native cousins as well, they’re just as interesting to watch.

Until next time, happy bug watching!


Flame on!

People come to the Cockrell Butterfly Center to see butterflies, but are often equally entranced by the lush plants that provide the setting.  The plant life has multiple functions.  One, since most of the butterflies we display in the center are from tropical rainforests, we try to duplicate their native environment and conditions to make them feel at home (and hopefully to maximize their short lifespans). 

Warszewiczia coccinea

Warszewiczia coccinea growing
in the Cockrell Butterfly Center

Second, some of the flowering plants provide food (nectar) for the butterflies.  And third, we try to find plants that are interesting and attractive to our human visitors.  We keep all these things in mind when selecting a plant for the exhibit. 

One plant in particular that fills all our criteria is the Rainforest Flame Tree, or Warszewiczia coccinea, as it is known botanically. 

This member of the coffee family is native to Central and South America and the West Indies.  It is the national tree of Trinidad (another common name for this tree is “Pride of Trinidad.”) It usually grows to around 25 feet tall, but can reach greater heights in different growing conditions.  In Costa Rica, this tree is considered a canopy tree and can reach 50 feet. 

The leaves of the tree are somewhat corrugated and are located oppositely on the stem.  But the best thing about it are the showy flowering branches.  They are located on the end of a branch and are placed at the nodes. 

Each flower cluster is accented by a red bract, sort of like a poinsettia flower would have.  In fact, another one of the common names for this plant is poinsettia tree.  The flower cluster, which is orange, is very appealing to butterflies because it is loaded with nectar.  In any given moment, several species of butterflies can be seen visiting the flowers. 

Although Warszewiczia warrants more use in tropical gardens, it is rarely seen outside botanical gardens.  One reason for this is that it is difficult to propagate.  Usually, plants in the coffee family can be propagated by seeds or by cuttings. Warszewiczia, on the other hand, shows little success with either method.  After several years of trying in the greenhouses of the Butterfly Center, just one cutting has ever proven successful.  

Due to its rarity, Warszewiczia is highly sought after by plant collectors.  If a collector was lucky enough to acquire one of these plants he would want to live in a warm environment such as Houston.  Any environment colder than Houston would require a greenhouse to overwinter the plant.