Common Questions About Centipedes
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Centipedes, with an evolutionary lineage dating back more than 400 million years, share ancestral roots with lobsters, shrimp and crayfish. Worldwide, some 3000 modern species have been discovered and described by scientists, who estimate that another 5000 species await discovery and description. The centipedes' menacing appearance, secretive hideaways, nocturnal predation and wide diversity have given rise to a bewildering patchwork of facts, questions and folklore. In the United States' arid Southwest, the centipede - like the scorpion, tarantula, rattlesnake and coyote - holds the status of icon. At the Hueco Tanks State Historic site, in far western Texas, the centipede is celebrated in a rock art image painted by a Native American shaman centuries ago.
Appearance and Anatomy of a Centipede
- elongated, flattened, exoskeletal body
- a head with distinctive antenna
- a segmented trunk with numerous legs
- the head is encased within a shield
- a three-part mouth that serves for feeding and grooming
- simple eye clusters, in some species, that provide for light detection
- segmented antenna that function for feeling and smelling
- just forward of the eyes, a "Tomosvary" organ that serves for some unknown purpose, although it may provide sensing humidity, light, pressure or sound.
- the trunk formed, always, by an odd number of membranous-connected segments, each equipped with a single pair of legs and each protected by a hard plate on the top and another on the bottom
- first segment (behind the head) has legs modified to serve as venomous claws used for capturing and administering a fatal "bite"
- last segment has legs modified for use in defense and mating
- intermediate segments each, generally, have segmented legs that terminate in a claw
- in the membranous-connecting tissues, spiracles, or small openings, that facilitate internal gas exchange (or breathing).
- claw-tipped Legs are covered with hairs or with spines that serve as sensors and with pores that have an unknown function
- right legs move forward and left legs move backward and vice versa
- the legs propel the centipede at speeds as high as two feet per second
- claws on some species can inflict tiny cuts in flesh and conduct venom into the wounds.
- the heart is a tube running the length of the trunk
Range and Habitat
Centipedes occur worldwide, except for the Polar Regions, with the highest abundances in the tropics. Lacking an exoskeletal waxy layer that would protect them from desiccation, centipedes typically hunt their prey in the cool of the night and take daytime shelter in damp microenvironments, for instance, within stony crevices, fallen leaves, rotting logs, bathrooms, and basement corners.
Foraging, Prey and Predators
As swift and nimble predators with indiscriminate appetites, centipedes feed on a broad range of prey, which may include small amphibians, reptiles, mammals and birds as well as earthworms, insects and even adult tarantulas. A centipede clutches and kills its prey with the venomous claws connected to the segment behind the head.
In spite of their venomous bites and their unappetizing appearance, centipedes fall prey to various mammals, birds, reptiles, insects, spiders, scorpions, and even other centipedes.
Centipede, which had been injured, being eaten by a box turtle. Photo by Karen Stith.
Shunning copulation, male centipedes simply deposit their sperm bundles, which, they trust, females will find and use to impregnate themselves. In some species, the male performs a courtship dance to advertise his bundle. In other species, the male just walks away from his bundle and hopes for the best.
In temperate regions, females lay their eggs in the spring and summer; in subtropical and tropical regions, they may lay eggs throughout the year. In some species, the female may lay several dozen eggs in holes in the soil then promptly abandon her embryo to hatch and manage on their own. In other species, the female may lay several dozen eggs in the soil or in rotted wood then remain to protect and care for her brood until her offspring can survive on their own.
Depending on the species, centipedes may reach adulthood and sexual maturity within one to three years. They may live for several years.
Generally, centipedes still have much to reveal about their life cycle.
Given their diversity, behavior and legendary aura, centipedes appear to defy a classification universally agreeable to science, although they obviously comprise one of the five groups of multi-legged arthropods - those with exoskeletons, segmented bodies and multiple jointed legs. In the Southwestern United States, the better known species include the giant desert centipede (Scolopendra heros), the banded desert centipede (Scolopendra polymorpha), and the house centipede (Scutigera coleoptrata).
The giant desert centipede, which includes three colorful subspecies, has more than two dozen segments and typically measures 8 to 10 inches in length, making it one of the larger in the world. The banded desert centipede, which has considerable color variability, has a dark band across the back edge of each segment and measures perhaps six inches in length. The house centipede, which has three dark stripes that run longitudinally along the back of its trunk, typically has 15 pairs of long, threadlike, striped legs and measures about one and a half to two inches in length.
A centipede may bite you in self-defense if it feels crowded or gets squeezed. A larger one can cause a painful wound. A smaller one cannot usually bite through human skin to inject venom. Statistically, centipedes appear to inflict fewer injuries than do bees, wasps, scorpions or ants.
A Few Centipede Facts
- The fossil of a 300-million-year-old centipede called Euphoberia measured nearly 40 inches in length and ranks as the largest on record.
- A modern centipede known as the Amazonian giant centipede, or Scolopendra gigantea, measures some 12 inches in length and ranks as the largest living species.
- The Amazonian giant centipede sometimes preys on bats, even catching them in flight.
- When a centipede molts, it leaves behind, in its shed skin, an exact replica of itself, including head, trunk and all legs.
- The house centipede - as well as several other species - may sacrifice a leg when threatened, leaving the twitching limb behind to - hopefully - distract a predator and cover an escape. It replaces the leg during its next molt.
- A centipede may bleed to death rapidly if it suffers an injury that penetrates its body wall.
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