When Halloween comes around, snakes and spiders tend to steal the show. Yet centipedes, in my experience, tend to evoke even stronger reactions from people — I have met many entomologists who would happily handle a tarantula but recoil in horror when faced with a giant centipede.
In the United States there are five species of giant centipedes in the family Scolopendridae. Today, in the spirit of Halloween, I give you the Big Five: where they are found, what they do, and why I love them.
Blue Tree Centipede (Hemiscolopendra marginata)
This is the smallest of the five, seldom exceeding 3 inches, but still the largest centipede throughout most of its range. It is found through much of the East, from Ohio and Pennsylvania south to Florida and west to eastern Texas. Tree centipedes are also found in Mexico south to the Yucatan Peninsula. As the name suggests, the tree centipede is often an attractive blue-green, with yellow legs and orange fangs. The brightness of the color depends on the location, however, and some are paler than others.
The blue tree centipede is a habitat specialist, living under the bark of rotting trees, often before they have toppled to the ground. I have had the best luck finding them under the bark of pine logs. Because they are such good climbers, they occasionally wind up in buildings where they can cause quite a scare.
Bites from tree centipedes are painful but not much worse than a bee sting. They use their venom, as all centipedes do, to kill prey. Because they prefer to live in rotten pine logs, they may specialize in hunting beetle grubs that eat rotting wood. Like most centipedes, however, data on their feeding habits is severely lacking.
Green-striped Centipede (Scolopendra viridis)
The green-striped centipede is larger, reaching 6 inches or so, and usually pale yellow with a thick green or black stripe running down the back. Other patterns exist, however, and in parts of their range this species can appear more like a tree centipede or a tiger centipede (#4). These are adaptable centipedes, found from Florida west to Arizona, but don’t seem to venture further north than South Carolina.
Green-striped centipedes can live in a variety of habitats but they seem to prefer sandy forests. In Florida they can be found in scrub habitat, but like all centipedes they are not well-adapted to drought, and must stay moist by hiding underground or in rotting logs during the day.
Caribbean Giant Centipede (Scolopendra alternans)
The Caribbean giant is the only one of the Five with the russet-brown, mono-chromatic appearance of a “typical” centipede. It is probably our largest species, with a length easily exceeding 8 inches. However, the Caribbean giant is, as you might have guessed, a tropical centipede, and in the U.S. it lives only in southern Florida. It requires humid habitats, and the best place to find them is in and around the Everglades, in Dade and Monroe Counties.
A certain foreign species, the Vietnamese giant (Scolopendra subspinipes), is easily confused with the Caribbean giant at first glance. That wouldn’t be a concern, except that the Vietnamese giant has already become invasive in Hawaii and — this is just my speculating — is likely to become established in the Everglades at some point in the future. Because it is so large, often exceeding 10 inches, the Vietnamese giant is sometimes sold in the pet trade. Bites from either species are not deadly, but extremely painful.
Tiger Centipede (Scolopendra polymorpha)
Like the green-striped centipede, the tiger is a 6-inch-long animal found in a variety of habitats. Unlike the green-striped, this is a strictly western species, found from Idaho south through California into Mexico, and east all the way to Missouri. Its name comes from its color pattern: each segment is orange or yellow with a narrow, dark band.
Giant centipedes often move faster by undulating in a snake-like fashion, taking advantage of their long and muscular bodies. When a tiger centipede does this, the bands appear to “flicker,” rather like the brightly-banded milk snake and coral snake. This can make the centipede more difficult to track visually, and hence more difficult for a bird or mouse to grab.
Tiger centipedes, like their namesake, are voracious predators. They have been seen taking down prey much larger than themselves, including geckos and praying mantises. In turn, tiger centipedes are prey for scorpions, spiders, snakes, and many other predators.
Centipedes are adapted to moving fast, and their exoskeletons are thin and flexible. The drawback is that they dehydrate very easily. Although tiger centipedes are found in deserts, they still have to remain underground most of the time to conserve moisture.
Giant Desert Centipede (Scolopendra heros)
If you’ve ever seen centipedes used in a horror movie, they were probably heros*. They are big, reaching 8 inches or more. They are also brightly colored in black and orange — perfect for Halloween!
Heros are found in the desert Southwest, and color patterns vary by location. In eastern Texas and Oklahoma, they are typically jet-black with a bright orange head and yellow legs. In Arizona (above) they are usually red, with the first and last segments black. In New Mexico and western Texas the pattern is orange with black bands, much like a tiger centipede.
Why have black on just the head and the last segment? This an example of automimicry, in which one part of an animal’s body mimics the other. In this case, the tail-end of the giant desert centipede mimics its head-end. When faced with a giant centipede, predators usually attack the head, hoping to avoid a painful bite. If a predator gets confused, however, and attacks the tail instead, an unpleasant surprise awaits when the true head whips around to greet its attacker.
Centipedes, giant and otherwise, are pretty scary, and I never begrudge people who are afraid of them. Still, centipedes are amazing animals and if you see one, I encourage you to take a closer look. It will teach you, if nothing else, that just because an animal is frightening does not mean it can’t be beautiful.
*There is a centipede in one of the Human Centipede movies. People often tell me this after I tell them I study centipedes, so let me clarify a few things: I don’t know what kind of centipede the bad guy has for a pet. Not because I couldn’t identify it, but because I have never watched those movies and never will. I also don’t want to hear you describe your favorite scene with as many details as possible. Thank you.