Giant African Millipedes are back!

December 27, 2010

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.

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!

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 the Director of the Cockrell Butterfly Center and in January of 2021, she joined the team at HMNS Sugar Land as the Director of Nature Programming. Erin leads hikes in Brazos Bend State Park and provides fun, hands-on nature-based experiences at HMNS Sugar Land. As a Board Certified Entomologist, Erin has extensive knowledge of insect identification, ecology, plant relationships, husbandry, really any insect-related topic!

8 responses to “Giant African Millipedes are back!”

  1. Christen Chipps says:

    That is great to hear! We kept them for years until out last and eldest past away and we have not been able to find a replacement. So we need a permit for them now? Is that what I am understanding? Is that for the entire US or state by state?

  2. Erin M. says:

    Yes Ma’am! You must have an appropriate USDA permit to house these millipedes. It’s actually been that way for quite some time. This goes for anyone within the United States.

  3. Sidrah says:

    Nice to know the basic difference between centipede and a millipede. I am now, however, confused about the difference between a millipede and an earthworm.

  4. Erin M. says:

    Hi Sidrah! Well, I can definitely help you there. Millipedes belong to the Phylum Arthropoda, which includes insects, arachnids, crustaceans, centipedes, millipedes, and horseshoe crabs. All of these animals share certain characteristics, most importantly, multiple pairs of jointed legs and a hard shell covering their body known as an exoskeleton.

    Earthworms belong to the phylum Annelida and are more closely related to animals like leeches. They have no legs and do not have a hard body covering. They cover their bodies with mucus to help with respiration, this makes them slimy, which arthropods are not! So, they are two completely different animals.

    The feeding habits, however, are very similar, so I can see how you could associate the two. They are both considered decomposers that burrow into the dirt and feed on decomposing organic matter! I hope this helps, thanks for reading!

  5. Hayley says:

    what are the reasons for needing a USDA permit?

  6. Erin M. says:

    Hi Hayley! I’m sorry for just now getting back to you! The reason for the USDA permit is to protect the environment and the animals. Species that are not native to our country or even the particular region we live in do not belong here and if they were to be released and become established, there could be some serious consequences for some of our native plants and animals. This is unlikely and in most cases, the animal being released would just die.

    Still, the United States government wants to take every precaution when dealing with non-native species, so the permits are only given out to authorized facilities and they contain standard operating procedures that we must follow to be sure nothing can escape from our facility. I hope this helps!

  7. Eric Duncan says:

    So, how could I get some? I’ll file for a permit and everything.

  8. Robert Szymanski says:

    Hi! I used to buy Giant African Millipedes back in the 1990’s… Since then, the pet store in Eureka California couldn’t get them…this was in 2008… I wonder how much does it cost for the proper paperwork permits to own a few.?

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