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.

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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!


Insect (relative) Insight: Centipedes and Millipedes

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.

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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.)

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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.