by Joseph DeSisto
Although I am interested in all sorts of creatures, I specialize in centipedes, and after having several conversations to this effect, there are a few things I would like to clear up. No, I haven’t seen The Human Centipede. No, I don’t want to. And no, I don’t want to listen to you describe the plot in excruciating (or really any) detail.
That said, I do enjoy well-made, less grotesque horror movies. The other night I watched The Ring, directed by Gore Verbinski (2002), and I’m pleased to report it’s my new favorite movie featuring a centipede.
Admittedly, the centipede’s two appearances are brief, but to be fair, centipedes don’t make for very complex characters. Near the start of the movie, the protagonist (played by Naomi Watts) watches a tape with a number of horrifying images, including a short clip of a centipede emerging from beneath a table. The tape is in black-and-white, but the size of the centipede places it in the family Scolopendridae, and the striking banded pattern suggests it almost certainly belongs to the species Scolopendra polymorpha.
If any centipede genus deserves a role in a horror classic, it’s Scolopendra, and not just for a Latin name which, let’s be honest, is pretty bad-ass. S. polymorpha in particular is found in xeric habitats through much of the western United States and northern Mexico. Beautifully adorned in bands of black, red-orange, and yellow, this 6-inch-long bruiser is one of the top predators in the dark, damp underground of North America’s deserts. Their main prey are other arthropods, which they kill with a powerful neurotoxic venom.
Across the world’s tropics and subtropics, giant centipedes in the genus Scolopendra prey on pretty much everything they can fit between their poison injecting front claws. This can include all sorts of invertebrates, as well as vertebrates, including lizards, snakes, frogs, and mice. In Venezuela, S. gigantea, a 10-inch-long behemoth, has been recorded hanging upside-down in caves and, snake-style, snatching unfortunate bats out of the air (Molinari et al. 2005). Despite being formidable, they are also prey themselves. In the southwestern U.S. desert, S. polymorpha has been recorded as prey for the much smaller but highly venomous scorpion, Centruroides sculpturatus (Graham and Webber 2013). Scorpions are hugely important predators in deserts, and they may be one of polymorpha‘s main predators.
Although a bite from a giant centipede can be extremely painful, their venom may have practical applications, especially in medicine and medical research. A study by Yang et al. (2013) demonstrated that a particular protein found in the venom of the Chinese Scolopendra subspinipes mutilans inhibited pain in mice. The protein apparently uses the same molecular pathway as morphine, but with greater efficiency.
As The Ring progresses, scenes from the tape are reflected in the life of Watts’ character. Towards the end, as she is shuffling through an old box, a large centipede emerges and startles her before racing off into the darkness, not to be seen again. This centipede was another scolopendrid, but not polymorpha. The color pattern wasn’t unique enough to make a positive identification. In other words, I was partially covering my eyes when the centipede emerged.
A lot of biologists get annoyed when their favorite animals are used in horror movies, especially when the movie either completely misrepresents the animal in question or is just really bad. But I have to say, I don’t really mind when giant centipedes are used to increase the scare factor of a scene, especially in a movie as good as The Ring. Frankly, the reasons people like to put them in movies are all the same reasons I find them worth studying. Centipedes are pretty scary, at least the giant ones. They’re the perfect combination of long, slithery snake-ness with many-legged, venom-injecting spider-ness. But they are also mysterious, fascinating, and awe-inspiring creatures, and the world would be a poorer place without them. They are beautiful nightmares.
Molinari, J., E.E. Gutiérrez, A.A. De Ascenção, J.M. Nassar, A. Arends, R.J. Marquez. 2005. Predation by giant centipedes, Scolopendra gigantea, on three species of bats in a Venezuelan cave. Caribbean Journal of Science 41(2): 340-6.
Webber, M.M., and M.R. Graham. 2013. An Arizona bark scorpion (Centruroides sculpturatus) found consuming a venomous prey item nearly twice its length. Western North American Naturalist 73(4): 530-2.
Yang, S., Y. Xiao, D. Kang, J. Liu, Y. Li, E.A.B. Undheim, J.K. Klint, M. Rong, R. Lai, and G.F. King. 2013. Discovery of a selective Nav1.7 inhibitor from centipede venom with analgesic efficacy exceeding morphine in rodent pain models. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 110(43): 17534-9.