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!


A day in the life of “Bugs on Wheels”

Bugs on Wheels” is the ever-so-popular outreach program that sweeps Erin and me away from the office on many days.  Our very first program was on Feb. 13, 2006 and needless to say, it was a HIT!  If you have ever wondered what goes on at a “Bugs on Wheels,” wonder no more because you are about to go on a trip with us right now. 

On a typical morning, Erin and I get to the office around 7:00 or 7:30.  We have to take care of our other jobs before we can hit the road.  Erin sorts through the insect zoo while I release butterflies. 

Next, we have to get all the critters ready to go.  All of the bugs that we take with us live in the containment room, so we do not have to take any away from the beautiful displays in the entomology hall.  Everyone gets loaded up in their critter carriers and we stack them all in a large Rubbermaid container with wheels. 

Then we are out to my car and on the road.  We have traveled as far away as Crosby and as close as just around the corner.  Set up is really easy, so we typically get to a school 10-15 minutes early.  Normally, we have to sign in at the front office where we almost always get bombarded with students and teachers asking “What is that??”  We prefer to set up in a classroom away from others, but there have been times when we had to fight the noisy crowds in a library or a cafeteria. 

Typically we do 30 minute presentations, especially if the students are younger than 3rd grade.  The older kids tend to sit still longer, allowing us to gab away for 45 minutes to an hour.  Once the kids enter the class, the first challenge is to sit them all in nice straight rows.  This part is hard for kids of all ages because they are distracted by the bugs of course! 

Erin and I take turns introducing ourselves to each class.  We tell them that we are from the Houston Museum of Natural Science and that we work in the Cockrell Butterfly Center.  We used to ask if anyone has been to HMNS, but we stopped doing that because every kid wants to tell a story of their visit here. 

We always like to ask the kids questions about insects before we begin; stuff like: How many legs? (6) How many body parts? (3: head, thorax, abdomen) What do they use to smell? (antennae) What kind of skeleton do they have? (exoskeleton)  Do they have wings? (some do) 

After this introduction, Erin and I turn almost invisible because the bugs totally steal the show! 

First, we talk about all of the insects: hissing cockroaches, 3 walking sticks, deer – horned stag beetle, and the giant long – legged katydid.  I have to say the most impressive is the katydid which the kids really love.  We bring up important facts about each bug and ask lots of questions to the audience.  Things like camouflage, mimicry, environment, adaptations, and diet are among some of the things we like to talk about. 

Next, we discuss arachnids and compare and contrast them with insects.  The two arachnids we show the kids are the whiptail scorpion, aka vinegaroon, and Rosie, our rose-hair tarantula.  This section gives us the opportunity to clear up some misconceptions about tarantulas.  Most people think they are soooooo venomous and cannot believe we actually hold one. 

Lastly, we pull out the giant African millipede and have them guess what it is.  Every now and then we will get a correct guess, but the majority of the guesses are: caterpillar, snake, worm, snail, rollie pollie, and centipede.  We actually have a preserved centipede that we can compare the millipede to and show the differences. 

The best part about our presentation is that every kid, if they want to, can touch all of the bugs with the exception of the vinegaroon and the stag beetle, who don’t like to be touched.

Once we are all finished, we open the floor up to questions and eventually move on to the next group!  Some days we do six, 30-minute presentations and others we do three, 1-hour presentations.

lost its leg but determinant ...
Creative Commons License photo credit: challiyan

For us, this program is very rewarding.  One of the best things is when a kid says “YUCK” when they first see the bug, but after we persuade them to touch it they think it’s cute.  Also, helping kids understand that bugs aren’t so bad and many of the big and scary ones are just trying to protect themselves from predators and that they don’t really want to hurt us. 

The most priceless moment is the initial excitement they get when they first see each bug – and the escalated joy when they find out they can actually touch the bug!

For all you parents and teachers out there, I have great news!  Our Bugs on Wheels program has expanded to three different and unique programs. 

The program I just explained is now considered “Amazing Arthropods.”  One of our new programs, “Butterflies and Moths,” introduces the amazing cycle of metamorphosis and shows how butterflies and moths differ from each other and from other insects.  The other program, “Plants and Pollination,” uses a giant flower model, puppets, a bee hive, and real fruits and vegetables to demonstrate the importance of pollination to the plant kingdom and especially to the foods we eat. 

If you are interested in our programs, please feel free to leave a comment here, or contact us at bow@hmns.org.