Whether we’ve owned a cat, dog, chinchilla, or whatever, or simply admired the grace and beauty of a horse or deer, most of us develop positive bonds. with at least one four-legged animal. But for everyone, except maybe scientists, the warm, fuzzy feelings evaporate when you switch to creatures with centipedes or more.
The insects, which all have six legs, rarely cause an oxytocin surge. I mean it’s unusual for people to have doe eyes on a mosquito, a yellow jacket, or a cucumber beetle. Overall, however, the bugs are nowhere near as scary as the eight-legged beasts. The term arachnid, I’m pretty sure, is Latin for “things with too many legs for my comfort level.” It includes ticks, which can transmit at least a dozen serious diseases to humans, as well as spiders. The latter, which humans seem to have an innate fear of, appear to be equal parts weight of legs, eyes, and hair.
As if eight appendages weren’t enough, the forces of nature have seen fit to make invertebrates with more loads. Centipedes are a prime example of a lack of cuteness. Although their name means “one hundred legs,” they can have anywhere from thirty to almost 300. They have one pair of legs per body segment and are said to all have an odd number of segments. This means that you will never find a centipede with exactly one hundred legs – too bad for the truth in advertising.
Carnivorous, poisonous and fast, centipedes are very high in the goosebumps index even if they pose no danger to us. These soft-bodied predators sometimes take over homes and will clean your living space of things like spiders, cockroaches, peace of mind, and restful sleep. If you find such characters inside, the best way to get rid of them is to eliminate whatever the centipedes eat.
Back when biologists named centipedes, a word meaning “centipede,” it was well known that these elongated, thin, hard-shelled arthropods did not have as many limbs. It’s just that there was no concise Latin name for “several hundred but they are really small and we keep losing count.” Unlike bloodthirsty millipedes, millipedes are scavengers, eating rotten stuff like rotten leaves and wood, as well as mushrooms. They are very beneficial in gardens and in compost heaps. Occasionally, centipedes briefly appear in homes during extreme weather conditions, especially in times of drought, but also after long periods of rain.
In our area, centipedes tend to be quite small, from less than half an inch long to maybe 1.4 inches or three centimeters. Just south of us, the giant American centipede can grow to be about four inches or ten inches long. Not surprisingly, this species is moving north out of its historic range in the mid-Atlantic US states.
On December 21, 2021, livescience.com reported a fossilized centipede found in the UK dating back 326 million years to the Carboniferous Period. The researchers estimate that the individual they unearthed was about 8.5 feet long (2.6 meters) and would have weighed in the flesh about 110 pounds (50 kg). For sure, this thing would make a real dent in your compost pile.
In terms of living novelties, a centipede with actually a thousand legs was discovered in Australia in December 2021. This newly found species, Eumilipes persephone, is only about 0.04 inch (0.9 mm) wide and 3.74 inch (95 mm) long, but they win the prize for the stride. After taking enough Adderall (I guess), a researcher was able to count the legs on a single specimen; all 1,306 of them. Hopefully this species is not prone to joint pain. Blind millipedes grazing on fungi have been found deep underground – up to 197 feet or 60 meters deep – in a number of exploratory boreholes drilled by mining companies years ago. As the organic material falls into the boreholes and disintegrates, Eumilipes persephone eat the fungi that colonize the detritus.
Unable to bite or sting, centipedes are very docile. When I was a kid I thought it was neat to see how they twisted like a watch spring if they were disturbed. Turns out, they make great pets because they are easy to maintain and can live five years or more in captivity. Some pet stores sell giant African centipedes, which can be up to 10 inches long. I’m all for low-maintenance pets, but without fur, body heat, and expressive eyes, I’m not sure I can bond emotionally with such a long animal.
Paul Hetzler, a former Cornell cooperative extension educator, has a dog but is still looking for the right arthropod.
Thank you centipede to my friend Laurent Dubois from Masham, QC for launching this idea my way.