Some species are highly venomous and often produce very
painful bites but only one human death has ever been recorded -
from a bite on the head of a young child by a large centipede on
a Pacific island - though severe reactions have also
occasionally been recorded in adults.
Like the millipedes, centipedes are highly segmented (15 to 173 segments), but with only one pair of walking legs per segment. Centipedes are dorso-ventrally flattened, and are among the fastest and most agile of non-flying arthropod predators.
The head of a centipede has a pair of antennae, jaw-like mandibles, and other mouthparts. The most anterior trunk segment of a centipede has a pair of venomous claws (called maxillipedes) that are used for both defense and for capturing and paralyzing prey. Despite their name, which stems from the Latin words centum (meaning 'hundred') and pes, pedis (meaning 'foot'), they normally have around half that number of legs, though it is possible to find centipedes with over 200 legs.
The house centipede (Scutigera coleoptrata) is a fast-moving carnivore that feeds on insects such as cockroaches, house flies, and other small house pests, and is thus domestically beneficial in nature. Though generally harmless to humans, its alarming appearance and painful bite result in its extermination from residences. The bite of a smaller centipede in temperate areas may be similar to a bee sting, but the bite of a larger tropical species is excruciatingly painful, leaving two black puncture wounds about a centimeter apart.
Scolopendra gigantea, also known as the Amazonian giant
centipede, is the largest extant species of centipede in the
world, reaching over 30 cm (12 inches) in length. It is known to
eat bats, catching them in midflight, as well as rodents and
spiders. The prehistoric Euphoberia was the largest known
centipede, growing up to one meter (39 in) in length.
There are rumors that state that the Galápagos Islands giant centipede (Scolopendra galapagoensis) can reach sizes of up to 25 inches, although these rumours may result from the rarity of the particular centipede. Captive Galapagos centipedes don't often exceed 8 inches in body length.
The garden centipede, the most common centipede in North America, is a much smaller variety, rarely exceeding a few inches in length.
Males spin a small web onto which they deposit a spermatophore for the female to take up. Sometimes there is a courtship dance, and sometimes the males just leave them for the females to find. In temperate areas egg laying occurs in spring and summer but in subtropical and tropical areas there appears to be little seasonality to centipede breeding.
The Lithobiomorpha, and Scutigeromorpha lay their eggs singly in holes in the soil, the female fills the hole in on the egg and leaves it. The young usually hatch with only 7 pairs of legs and gain the rest in successive moults. Scutigera coleoptera, the American house centipede, hatches with only 4 pairs of legs and in successive moults has 5, 7, 9, 11, 15, 15, 15 and 15 before becoming a sexually mature adult. It takes about 3 years for S. coleoptera to achieve adulthood, however, like millipedes, centipedes are relatively long-lived when compared to their insect cousins, the European Lithobius forficatus can live for 5 or 6 years.
Females of Geophilomorphapha and Scolopendromorpha show far more parental care, the eggs 15 to 60 in number are laid in a nest in the soil or in rotten wood, the female stays with the eggs, guarding and licking them to protect them from fungi. The female in some species stays with the young after they have hatched, guarding them until they are ready to leave. If disturbed the females tend to either abandon the eggs or young or to eat them, abandoned eggs tend to fall prey to fungi rapidly, thus breeding is difficult to study in these species.
This Centipede Page is Copyright The Animal Web Guide © 2004 - 2009 Chuck Ayoub