Common Names for a Few Centipedes

by Joseph DeSisto

Few, if any, centipedes have common names. Presumably this is because they are often perceived as being uncharismatic. Here’s why they should get common names:

1) Centipedes are too charismatic.

2) Yes they are.

Below I’ve listed every species of soil centipede known from New England. Soil centipedes belong to the order Geophilomorpha, one of four centipede orders found in North America — so this list is far from complete. I’ve provided a Latin name, a proposed common name, and a brief explanation.

Arenophilus bipuncticeps, the northern short-clawed centipede

Northern because it’s the only Arenophilus found in the northeastern U.S., short-clawed because the claws on its last pair of legs are short and stubby and adorable.

Geophilus vittatus, the diamondback soil centipede

This is one of the prettiest centipedes around, and here in New England, we are lucky because it is also one of the commonest. It is a pale yellow like most centipedes, but with dark diamond-shaped markings running down the back. They are found in a variety of habitats, but are especially easy to find if you peel loose bark off dead stumps and logs.

The diamondback soil centipede (Geophilus vittatus), one of my favorites. You can find this centipede in the northeastern United States by peeling away loose bark from dead stumps and logs. Photo by Tom Murray.

The diamondback soil centipede (Geophilus vittatus), one of my favorites. Photo by Tom Murray.

Geophilus mordax, the pitted soil centipede

G. mordax is a strange centipede, and in reality probably includes two species: mordax in the south and virginiensis in the northern part of its range. For now, though, the two species are united by the presence of pit-like structures (sacculi) on each of the sternites or belly plates.

Geophilus cayugae, the montane soil centipede

According to Crabill (1952) G. cayugae prefers high elevations. Other than that, this species isn’t all that distinct.

Geophilus terranovae, the Newfoundland soil centipede

Here’s a cool one. Terranovae was described by Palmen in the 1950s from Newfoundland, and since no one had recorded it elsewhere, the centipede was assumed to be endemic to Newfoundland. But just this year, I found specimens of terranovae from New Hampshire, so although this is clearly a boreal species, it has a much wider range than previously thought.

Geophilus flavus, the boreal yellow-headed soil centipede

This is one of our largest soil centipedes, an introduced species from Europe. It is also yellow-white, with a darker head, and often found in gardens. This species is common in my home state of Maine but I have yet to find any in Connecticut. I suspect this is because G. flavus prefers a more northern climate, with cooler temperatures and pine-dominated forests.

This name is a little long, but there are a lot of soil centipedes out there. It looks like long names might just have to be the norm.

The venom-injecting fangs of the northern yellow-headed soil centipede (Geophilus flavus). Photo by Joseph DeSisto.

The venom-injecting fangs of the boreal yellow-headed soil centipede (Geophilus flavus). Photo by Joseph DeSisto.

Strigamia bothriopus, the red pin-head centipede

Species in the genus Strigamia are a mix of beautiful, weird, and horrifying. Many are brightly colored, and in New England bothriopus is one of the prettiest, the vivid red hue of a Maraschino cherry. They also have tiny heads, which is sort of adorable, until you learn what they’re for.

Strigamia have an extra claw on their venom-injecting fangs, causing them to look sort of like a can-opener. In function this is not inaccurate, but instead of opening cans, pin-head centipedes use their claws to open up the abdomens of insects. The tiny head can then be inserted into the insect — this way, Strigamia can lap up the nutritious insides of its prey without having to chew through lots of exoskeleton.

Strigamia chionophila, the boreal pin-head centipede

Chionophila is similar to bothriopus, but smaller and less brightly colored. This species is also more common in boreal habitats, gradually replacing bothriopus as the climate cools to the north.

The red pin-head centipede (Strigamia bothriopus). Photo by Tom Murray.

The red pin-head centipede (Strigamia bothriopus). Photo by Tom Murray.

Pachymerium ferrugineum, the long-jawed shore-crawler

This is by far my favorite New England soil centipede, but unfortunately it is one of the least common. The shore-crawler gets its name from the fact that it’s fangs are relatively large for its body size, and that it is often found in the intertidal zone. Beneath rocks and seaweed, it feeds on barnacles, amphipods, worms, and other marine invertebrates. This centipede can even tolerate extended periods of immersion in salt water!

For this reason, I’ve named ferrugineum the “shore-crawler” rather than the “shore centipede.” Shore-crawler sounds cooler, and cool centipedes get cool names.

Schendyla nemorensis, the clawless soil centipede

This centipede is small and inconspicuous, but one of the most widespread soil centipedes in the world. It exists in Europe as well as much of northern North America, where it is thought to have been introduced by humans, but in fact it may have been here long before us. The name comes from the fact that its last pair of legs lack tarsal claws, for reasons unknown.

Escaryus liber, the Appalachian winter centipede

Like all members of the genus Escaryus, this species is highly cold-tolerant and can remain active through the winter, beneath the frost line. I have examined winter centipedes that were caught in pitfall traps as early as January — my suspicion is that this adaptation allows them to feed on defenseless, hibernating insects, giving them a head start in the coming year.

A soil centipede chomps down on an earthworm ... a little ambitious, perhaps? Photo by Tom Murray.

A soil centipede chomps down on an earthworm … a little ambitious, perhaps? Photo by Tom Murray.

Escaryus urbicus, the short-faced winter centipede

In North America, this is the northernmost representative of Escaryus, and the one you would expect to find in New England. In truth, all winter centipedes have relatively short “faces,” and fangs that don’t extend past the front margin of the head. But only one species could have that common name, so this was it.

Obviously nothing about this list is official — I’d love to hear your thoughts on how the names could be improved. Centipedes, like many invertebrates, are nightmarish to many, fascinating to some, and beautiful to only a few. Perhaps by making them more accessible to the public, we can reveal them for what they truly are: awe-inspiring, magnificent, and ultimately beautiful nightmares.

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