Tag Archives: centipede

Endangered, Bird-eating Centipedes of Mauritius

Can a centipede really be endangered? Of course!

Centipedes don’t get much love, even from each other. They are solitary, irritable, fiercely cannibalistic, and arguably some of the most widely hated animals on earth. I know many biologists who would gladly handle a snake or tarantula, but shudder at the thought of a giant centipede creeping up their arm.

An Indopacific centipede, making good use of a hole in the wall. Photo by Thomas Brown, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

An Indopacific centipede, making good use of a hole in the wall. Photo by Thomas Brown, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

I never begrudge people for being scared of centipedes. They are objectively frightening: many-legged, venomous, fast-moving, and secretive. In the rural tropics, a painful bite from a giant centipede is a very real possibility. But none of this means they can’t be endangered, put at risk of extinction either by natural circumstance or by human activity.

Unsurprisingly, very few centipedes have ever been studied from a conservation-oriented perspective. Most of the time, there simply isn’t the funding, public interest, or lack of squeamishness to make that kind of research happen. There are, however, exceptions. Today I’m going to tell you about one: the giant centipedes of Mauritius and Rodrigues.

Mauritius, Rodrigues, and their satellites form a collection of tiny islands in the Indian Ocean, just a few thousand miles east of Madagascar. Like most islands they have a long, sad history of extinctions wrought by over-hunting, invasive species, and habitat destruction. The dodo bird, native to Mauritius, was one of the first victims.


Mauritius, in panoramic view. Photo by Clément Larher, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

The two main islands are home to two species of giant centipede, the blue-legged (Scolopendra morsitans) and the Indopacfic (Scolopendra subspinipes) centipedes*. Both species are incredibly efficient predators, and with body lengths of 8 inches or more, they are more than capable of tackling large prey such as mice. On Mauritius, staple fare include house geckos and cockroaches, but they also take day-old chicks from their nests when opportunity strikes (Lewis et al. 2010). The Indopacific centipede can even swim, undulating side-to-side while holding its head above the surface like a crocodile (Lewis 1980).

Despite their size, venom, and general badassness, giant centipedes are prey for many larger animals. On Mauritius, they form 80% of the diet of feral cats that roam the island by night. The cats are apparently nimble (and daring) enough to tear apart the centipedes without getting bitten.

An Indopacific centipede from China. Photo by Thomas Brown, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

An Indopacific centipede from China. Photo by Thomas Brown, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Even in the face of predation by cats, giant centipedes remained abundant until 1997, when a new invasive species came into the picture. That species was the musk shrew (Suncus murinus), introduced from India. A smaller shrew might become prey for a centipede, but the musk shrew is the largest in the world, reaching a length of 6 inches or more.

An 8-inch-long centipede is still a formidable adversary, but the shrews were used to encountering giant centipedes in their native range (as it happens, the Indopacific centipede also lives in India). They have made short work of centipede populations, which are now greatly reduced (Lewis et al. 2010). The Indopacific centipede is now found on Rodrigues, but no longer on Mauritius, while the blue-legged centipede is still found on both islands.

Mauritius and its satellite islands. From Lewis et al. (2010), licensed under CC BY 4.0.

Mauritius and its satellite islands. From Lewis et al. (2010), licensed under CC BY 4.0.

I am not about to launch into a passionate defense of blue-legged and Indopacific centipedes. As I said before, both species are abundant in tropical habitats all over the world, from Indonesia to the Caribbean. For all we know the centipedes themselves are invasive, dancing with cats and shrews on the graves of long-gone native species. Instead this article is about another giant, a third centipede, gone from Mauritius but still clinging to life on Serpent Island.

Serpent Island is a satellite of Mauritius, uninhabited by humans and with an area less than 100 acres. There is very little vegetation or soil there, and bare rock dominates the surface. In the absence of humans or large predators, sea birds thrive, especially sooty terns which nest by the thousands on open ground.

They share the space with centipedes — not Indopacific or blue-legged, but Serpent Island giant centipedes (Scolopendra abnormis), which are found on one other satellite island (Round Island) and nowhere else on earth — not even Mauritius. The centipedes are abundant on Serpent Island, with roughly 12 individuals per square meter. If centipedes frighten you, don’t plan your next vacation here.

During the day centipedes hide beneath rocky slabs and underground, away from the light and from watchful, easily enraged mother birds. Terns are active during the day, flying from land to sea and back again, gathering fish for their hungry chicks. With all the traffic, a centipede is better off staying out of sight.

A sooty tern. Photo by Duncan Wright, in public domain.

A sooty tern. Photo by Duncan Wright, in public domain.

By night the terns are less wary. Snakes, which would normally prey on tern chicks, are absent from the island, probably driven out soon after the arrival of European explorers. Without the competition, centipedes have risen to take their place. Wandering over the rocks, a centipede uses smell and touch to locate a nest, grab hold of a chick, and sink in its venom-laden fangs. More than any so-called bird-eating tarantula, the Serpent Island centipede is a true bird-eater. In captivity, they can survive for several years on a diet of chick legs (Lewis et al. 2010).

The taste for bird meat is probably a recent acquisition — Serpent Island centipedes most likely colonized the island only a few million years ago. They would have arrived from Mauritius, suggesting the larger island had a population of Serpent Island centipedes before they were driven to extinction by the introduced shrews, cats, and perhaps larger centipedes.

The Serpent Island centipede is classified as Vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN 2012). This means the species is  “considered to be facing a high risk of extinction in the wild.” It is one of 10 potentially threatened centipedes on the IUCN Red List (of 3,300 total centipede species worldwide). So far, none have been given legal protection.

Centipede snacks. Photo by Duncan Wright, in public domain.

Centipede food. Photo by Duncan Wright, in public domain.

The bad news is that, if shrews or cats or rats were to be introduced to Serpent Island, the entire ecosystem would collapse. Invasive predators would quickly eat both chicks and centipedes, leaving Serpent Island a bare rock in the middle of the ocean, with a few tufts of grass and the occasional cockroach.

The good news is that centipedes are abundant in their last remaining habitats, with an estimated population of 10-15,000. Serpent Island is remote and protected, and biologists are pretty much the only visitors, so it is unlikely shrews will ever get there. The future of Serpent Island’s bird-eating centipedes is secure, for now.

Reminder: there are still 6 days left to donate to Dr. Adam Britton’s crowdfunding campaign to study threatened pygmy crocodiles in Australia! I’ve donated, and I encourage you to so if you think pygmy crocodiles, which you can read about here, are awesome, which of course they are. There are some amazing prizes for donors, including crocodile-themed artwork and jewelry!

*These species normally go by the common names Tanzanian giant (blue-legged) and Vietnamese giant (Indopacific). However, both are extremely wide-ranging in tropical habitats all over the world, including Hawaii where they have been introduced by humans (Shelley et al. 2014). To reduce confusion I used alternative common names.


IUCN. 2012. IUCN Red List Categories and Criteria: Version 3.1. Second edition. Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK: IUCN. iv + 32pp.

Lewis J.G.E., P. Daszak, C.G. Jones, J.D. Cottingham, E.Wenman, and A. Maljkovic. 2010. Field observations on three scolopendrid centipedes from Mauritius and Rodrigues (Indian Ocean) (Chilopoda: Scolopendromorpha). International Journal of Myriapodology 3: 123-137.

Lewis J.G.E. 1980. Swimming in the centipede Scolopendra subspinipes Leach (Chilopoda, Scolopendromorpha). Entomologists Monthly Magazine 116: 219-220.

Shelley R.M., W.D. Perreira, and D.A. Yee. 2014. The centipede Scolopendra morsitans L., 1758, new to the Hawaiian fauna, and potential representatives of the “S. subspinipes Leach, 1815, complex” (Scolopendromorpha: Scolopendridae: Scolopendrinae). Insecta Mundi 338: 1-4.


North America’s Big Five Centipedes

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)

The blue tree centipede. Photo by Sharon Moorman.

The blue tree centipede. Photo by Sharon Moorman.

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.

The green-striped centipede. Photo by Jeff Hollenbeck, licensed under CC BY-ND-NC 1.0.

The green-striped centipede. Photo by Jeff Hollenbeck, licensed under CC BY-ND-NC 1.0.

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)

A tiger centipede from Arizona. Photo by Sue Carnahan, licensed under CC BY-ND-NC 1.0.

A tiger centipede from Arizona. Photo by Sue Carnahan, licensed under CC BY-ND-NC 1.0.

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.

A tiger centipede, fallen prey to a scorpion. Photo by Jasper Nance, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

A tiger centipede, fallen prey to a scorpion. Photo by Jasper Nance, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

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!

The Arizona form of the giant desert centipede. Photo by Aaron Goodwin, licensed under CC BY-ND-NC 1.0.

The Arizona form of the giant desert centipede. Photo by Aaron Goodwin, licensed under CC BY-ND-NC 1.0.

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.

A giant desert centipede. Photo from NMNH Insect Zoo, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

A giant desert centipede. Photo from NMNH Insect Zoo, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

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.

The Many Uses of Centipede Legs

by Joseph DeSisto

This post started out titled “My Favorite Centipede Genus,” but that could never last. I have too many favorites. Right now, Theatops is my 6th, but things can always shift around. Theatops has no official common name, but in the spirit of this blog, I’m going to make one up right now: the forcep centipedes. I’ll explain why.

Forcep centipedes are not especially diverse, with only six species known worldwide, four of which are strictly North American. They are, however, large and impressive, and reasonably common through much of their range. A week or so ago Derek Hennen sent me a speciment of Theatops posticus, one of two species found in the eastern U.S.:

A Theatops posticus from Ohio, sent to me by Derek Hennen. Photo by Joseph DeSisto.

A Theatops posticus from Ohio, sent to me by Derek Hennen. Photo by Joseph DeSisto.

Modified hind legs are common in centipedes, especially in the scolopendromorphs (centipedes with 21 or 23 pairs of legs). A paper published today in ZooKeys reviewed the uses for hind legs in the family Scolopendridae (Kronmüller and Lewis 2015), which includes some of the most impressive centipedes, i.e., the foot-long giants in the genus Scolopendra.

Their conclusions were that the hind legs of scolopendrids have a wide variety of uses, the least of which is walking. In Scolopendra, the legs are covered in short spines and are used to capture prey, guide courtship, and grapple with predators. After an intimidating display, a Scolopendra can grab onto you with its hind legs, then rear its whole body around to inject venom with its fangs — which are themselves modified legs.


Figure 2 from the Kronmüller and Lewis paper, showing uses for the spiny modified legs of Scolopendra. The threat display (A and B) would be quite intimidating coming from a centipede that can reach 12 inches or more in length. From Kronmüller and Lewis (2015), licensed under CC BY 4.0.

Hind legs can also mimic antennae, so that predators like birds are tricked into attacking the less vulnerable rear end of the centipede. Attackers are then met with an unpleasant surprise when the real head makes its move! This strategy is most obvious in Scolopendra heros arizonensis, where the trunk is orange but the first and last few segments are jet black. But many non-scolopendrids also have rear legs that resemble antennae, especially the scutigeromorphs or “house centipedes,” whose legs readily detach if they are caught.

Scolopendra heros arizonensis, from the deserts of the southwestern U.S. and Mexico. The

Scolopendra heros arizonensis, from the deserts of the southwestern U.S. and Mexico. The “mimicry” between the front and rear segments might confuse predators into attacking the wrong end. Photo by Aaron Goodwin, licensed under CC BY-ND-NC 1.0.

Scolopendrids can also use their legs to climb, even on the ceilings of caves. Scolopendra gigantea, a South American giant that can reach 12 or more inches in length, has been observed hanging from its rear legs in Venezuelan caves and snatching bats out of the air (Molinari et al. 2005). This phenomenon was even featured in the first episode of David Attenborough’s Life in the Undergrowth television series.

Then there’s the flag-tailed Alipes, which uses its hind legs to make a hissing noise … really you should just read the paper. It’s a peer-reviewed journal article, but it is publicly accessible here and, for the most part, readable by a non-expert.

Miscellaneous scolopendrid rear legs, modified in different ways. The flag-tailed centipede (C) is probably the strangest, and its legs can be rubbed together to make a loud hissing noise. Photo from Kronmuller and Lewis (2015), licensed under CC BY-NA 4.0.

Miscellaneous scolopendrid rear legs, modified in different ways. The flag-tailed centipede Alipes (C) is probably the strangest, and its legs can be rubbed together to make a loud hissing noise. Photo from Kronmüller and Lewis (2015), licensed under CC BY 4.0.

All of this was a very long way of saying that Theatops isn’t really that special … probably. Actually, Theatops was not covered in this paper, since it belongs not to Scolopendridae but to the less-known family Plutoniumidae. And yes, that’s the real name.

In the East we have two species: T. posticus and T. spinicaudus. The main difference between the two is that spinicaudus has a pretty large spine on the last pair of legs, while posticus does not. So, I here propose we call posticus the smooth-tailed forcep centipede and spinicaudus the spiny-tailed forcep centipede.

Smooth-tails are found through most of the eastern U.S., from Connecticut south to Florida and west to eastern Texas (Shelley 2002). A separate population of smooth-tails is found in the West (along with two other Theatops species), in western Arizona and southern California and Nevada, but this may represent a separate species.

Spiny-tails, meanwhile, are abundant but geographically restricted: there are two populations, one in the southern Appalachians and one in the Ozarks (Shelley 2002). Apparently this species prefers mountain habitats, since spinicaudus is not found in the area between the two mountain ranges.*

The forcep-like hind legs of the smooth-tailed forcep centipede, Theatops posticus. Photo by Joseph DeSisto.

The forcep-like hind legs of the smooth-tailed forcep centipede, Theatops posticus. Photo by Joseph DeSisto.

*[Actually, this is why I’m looking for Theatops specimens in the first place — to obtain genetic data so I can figure out how/when they came to inhabit their bizarre geographic ranges.]

The modified hind legs immediately make me think of an earwig, and they appear to be useful for grabbing things — but what are these centipedes grabbing? To start, they certainly do grab the forceps I used to pick them up during my May trip to the southern Appalachians. If you try and pick up one of these centipedes, they will simultaneously grab you with their legs and inject venom with their fangs.

But then, why attack with non-venomous hind legs, when forcep centipedes can and do use their venom-injecting fangs? Perhaps the hind legs give the centipede leverage with which to inflict a longer-lasting, more painful bite. It’s possible, and scolopendrids certainly do it, but I think there may be more to this story.

The business end of Theatops posticus -- the fangs beneath the head pack a healthy dose of venom, used to dispatch prey. Photo by Joseph DeSisto.

The business end of Theatops posticus — the fangs beneath the head pack a healthy dose of venom, used to dispatch prey and make predators cry. Photo by Joseph DeSisto.

The whole last segment of a forcep centipede’s body, including the legs, is heavily protected with extra-thick cuticle. The exoskeleton on the rear legs and segment is about as thick as that around the fangs at the front of the body, which is usually the most heavily protected part of a centipede. I think that Theatops species might use their hind legs to attack dangerous prey — spiders, or maybe even other centipedes. In this way, a forcep centipede can inflict its deadly bite only after the prey has been subdued, so avoiding injury.

It’s only a hypothesis, and one that requires some testing. I have tried feeding smaller centipedes to Theatops, who attacked and fed with gusto, but never used involved their rear legs in the process. So for now, we really don’t know why forcep centipedes have such strange hind legs. All we know is that they are strange, oddly captivating, and will likely remain that way for a long time.

A couple of things. First, I want to thank Derek Hennen, a Masters student at the University of Arkansas, for sending me the specimen photographed here. Actually, this is just one of many centipedes he has sent me! He also has his own blog, Normal Biology, featuring insects, millipedes, and even the occasional centipede.

On July 19 I will be speaking about centipedes, millipedes, and why they’re amazing at the Schoodic Research and Education Center in Acadia National Park (Maine)! This is a public program, part of the bioblitz going on that same weekend in Acadia. If you’re in the area, stop by! More information is available here.


Kronmüller, C. and J.G. Lewis. 2015. On the function of the ultimate legs of some Scolopendridae (Chilopoda, Scolopendromorpha). ZooKeys 510: 269-278.

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.

Shelley, R. 2002. A synopsis of the North American centipedes of the order Scolopendromorpha (Chilopoda). Memoir of the Virginia Museum of Natural History 5: 1-108.

Key-making: Illustrating the Stone Centipedes of New England

by Joseph DeSisto

Have you been waiting on the edge of your seat for an identification key to the New England stone centipedes? Do you often find yourself up late at night, eagerly searching for recent articles in taxonomic journals, only to have your chilopodological hopes dashed?

Well, your wait is (nearly) over! This week I started illustrating a key to the stone centipedes of New England. A total of 18 species are represented, the product of more than a year of relentlessly identifying hundreds upon hundreds of museum specimens, but the key is finally coming! It will be ready to send off to a journal by the end of the semester.

It will be ready. It will be ready. It will be ready.

Fangs! Photo by Joseph DeSisto.

Fangs! Because, fangs! Photo by Joseph DeSisto.

Anyway, I spent today working on line drawings, and I’ve included a few outlines here — note that the images below are not the images that will appear in the key itself. Rather, these are preliminary outlines I have made to provide a template for the final illustrations. They still need a lot of work, including shading.

The outline of the photo from earlier looks like this:

The prosternum (with fangs!) of Bothropolys multidentatus, one of New England's largest and commonest stone centipedes. Illustration by Joseph DeSisto.

The prosternum (with fangs!) of Bothropolys multidentatus, one of New England’s largest and commonest stone centipedes. Illustration by Joseph DeSisto.

Not bad for a first go, huh? Actually it was my fourth or fifth go, but moving on …

How does this work? First, I use a fancy microscope and an extra-fancy image-stacking computer program to make nice clear images of a centipede feature like the one above. Then I print out that photograph, and use a micron pen to outline, directly on the picture, the drawing I want to create. When the photograph is sufficiently defiled by lines, scribbles crossing out lines, and more lines, I put the paper on a light box and copy my outline onto tracing paper.

Then I copy that onto another piece of tracing paper. And another. And another, until finally I have one that’s good enough to look at without cringing.

The centipede from earlier is Bothropolys multidentatus, a common and large centipede in New England. Below I’ve illustrated the pores on the coxae (basal segments) of the 14th pair of legs:

The 14th coxae, viewed from below, of Bothropolys multidentatus. Illustration by Joseph DeSisto.

The 14th coxae, viewed from below, of Bothropolys multidentatus. Illustration by Joseph DeSisto.

The last two illustrations, you may have noticed, are roughly symmetrical. Real specimens are hardly ever that perfect — to make the illustrations look a bit nicer, and fit better on the page, I traced one half first and then traced its mirror image. In other words, the outlines are symmetrical because each side of the line drawing actually shows the same side of the original specimen.

Here’s a special one. This sexy leg belongs to a male Nadabius aristeus, a common but smaller New England centipede. There are two important features I’m trying to show here. First, there are two claws, rather than just one, at the end of the leg. Second, the hairy crest on the tibia is unique to males the genus Nadabius.

One of the terminal legs of a male Nadabius aristeus. Illustration by Joseph DeSisto.

One of the terminal legs of a male Nadabius aristeus. The tarsus/foot is at the bottom. Illustration by Joseph DeSisto.

Female centipedes be like, damn!

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.

Some Strange Male Centipedes

by Joseph DeSisto

Time for some centipedes! Recently I’ve been looking at a lot of centipedes in the family Lithobiidae, and in particular the striking modifications of some of the males, and I thought I’d share them here.

For those of you who don’t spend your free time studying centipedes, they are arthropods with 15 or more pairs of legs and venomous fangs. I say “fangs,” but they are technically a highly modified pair of legs, positioned beneath the head, that centipede biologists may refer to as poison claws, forcipules, maxillipeds, prehensors, prehensorial feet, forcipular telopodites, toxicognaths (Bonato et al. 2010) … you get the picture. Fangs. They look like this, when viewed from below:


Bothropolys multidentatus, a common lithobiid centipede from eastern North America, viewed from beneath. Photo by Joseph DeSisto.

The fangs are the things that look like fangs. Pretty cool, huh?

Lithobiid centipedes belong to the order Lithobiomorpha, which includes centipedes with flattened bodies, spiracles (breathing holes) on the sides of their body, and 15 pairs of legs as adults. They are also show anamorphic development, which means the young add legs as they grow until they reach the final 15. Those in the family Lithobiidae have spines or spurs on their legs, which are helpful in identification.

Without a microscope, all lithobiids look pretty much the same. Some are bigger than others, but here in the eastern U.S. none exceed an inch or so. But on a smaller scale, the diversity in body form is fantastic, and one of the reasons they are probably my favorite family of centipedes.

To tell the difference between males and females, we need to move our view to the rear end of the centipede, and look at it again from beneath. While males are pretty nondescript in this regard, the females have a set of gonopod claws, which they use to manipulate the eggs they lay. A female centipede can lay an egg and then carry it around with her until she finds a suitable place to leave it, then use her legs and claws to coat the egg in dirt for camouflage .

Gonopod Claws

The gonopod claws on a female lithobiid, Lithobius forficatus. Please excuse the red writing, I originally made this image for a poster. Photo by Joseph DeSisto.

But in a few North American lithobiids, the males make themselves known by other means. This is most obvious in the last two pairs of legs, which may be highly modified into strange, contorted forms. Here’s an example, viewed from the side:

A male centipede in the genus Pearsobius. Photo by Joseph DeSisto.

A male centipede in the genus Pearsobius. Photo by Joseph DeSisto.

Pearsobius is a poorly known genus from Virginia and North Carolina (Causey 1942). The specimen above is unidentified. There will be a later post devoted just to Pearsobius, but for now, let’s look at more pictures! Pictures are great.

Male Pearsobius again, this time viewed from above. Photo by Joseph DeSisto.

Male Pearsobius again, this time viewed from above. Photo by Joseph DeSisto.

These centipedes are about half an inch in length, but the “spike” on the femur of the last pair of legs is visible even without a microscope. Although impressive, the purpose of these structures is unclear. My best guess is that the females use them to recognize males of the same species. While butterflies might use colors to achieve this effect, and birds might use songs, female centipedes live their lives in leaf litter and soil, where sight are of little use, and they can’t hear. So in an area where multiple centipede species might roam the same patch of leaf litter, a female needs something she can feel to avoid getting friendly with a male of a different species.

Not all leg modifications are so striking. Here is the 15th pair of legs on a male Paitobius zinus, also from Virginia.

The 15th pair of legs on a male Paitobius zinus from western Virginia. Photo by Joseph DeSisto.

The 15th pair of legs on a male Paitobius zinus from western Virginia. Photo by Joseph DeSisto.

Not as cool as a massive spike, but the modification here (the long indent on one of the segments) is still enough to make Paitobius distinguishable from other lithobiid genera. However, in Paitobius zinus, this is not the most striking male modification. Uniquely in this species, the male and female fangs/forcipules are different. The female’s forcipules are normal, and look pretty much like the ones from earlier (on Bothropolys). The male’s however … well, they look like this:

The forcipules on a male Paitobius zinus. Photo by Joseph DeSisto.

The forcipules on a male Paitobius zinus. Photo by Joseph DeSisto.


So far, P. zinus is the only species known to have modified male forcipules, and nobody knows why they have these. Long, narrow fangs could be an adaptation to extracting prey from narrow spaces (like in the woodlouse-eating spider, Dysdera crocata) … but why aren’t they found in females? Usually when we find a structure that is present in one sex but not the other, the function is related to reproduction. But as far as we know, the only thing forcipules are used for is killing prey.

Crabill (1960) was the first to write about this phenomenon in P. zinus, and since then, not a single person has bothered to study it. Why? Because despite being totally and undeniably awesome, centipedes are hard, and barely anyone studies them. I am currently planning a summer collecting trip to Virginia, though, and while I’m there I’ll see if I can learn anything. I have no idea why this species is so strange, but whatever reason there is, I bet it’s amazing.

A big thank you is owed to Dr. Bill Shear at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia, who kindly sent me the specimens of Pearsobius and Paitobius, which he collected.


Bonato, L., G. Edgecombe, J. Lewis, A. Minelli, L. Pereira, R. Shelley, and M. Zapparoli. 2010. A common terminology for the external anatomy of centipedes (Chilopoda). ZooKeys 69: 17-51.

Causey, N.B. 1942. New lithobiid centipedes from North Carolina. Journal of the Elisha Mitchell Scientific Society 58: 79-83.

Crabill Jr., R.E. 1960. A remarkable form of sexual dimorphism in a centipede (Chilopoda: Lithobiomorpha: Lithobiidae). Entomological News 71: 156-161.

Samara’s Centipedes

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.


Scolopendra polymorpha. Photo by Matt Reinbold.

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.

Scolopendra subspinipes mutilans, from China. Photo by Yasunori Koide.

Scolopendra subspinipes mutilans, from China. Photo by Yasunori Koide.

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.

Scolopendra heros. Photo by Aaron Goodwin.

Scolopendra heros, another scolopendrid from North America’s deserts. Photo by Aaron Goodwin.

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.