Pest Library: Centipedes & Millipedes
Centipedes (from Latin prefix centi-, “hundred”, and pes, pedis, “foot”) are arthropods belonging to the class Chilopoda of the subphylum Myriapoda, an arthropod group which also includes Millipedes and other multi-legged creatures. Centipedes are elongated metameric creatures with one pair of legs per body segment. Centipedes are known to be highly venomous, and often inject paralyzing venom. Despite the name, centipedes can have a varying number of legs, ranging from 30 to 354. Centipedes always have an odd number of pairs of legs. Therefore, no centipede has exactly 100 legs. A key trait uniting this group is a pair of venom claws or forcipules formed from a modified first appendage. Centipedes are predominantly carnivorous.
Their size can range from a few millimetres in the smaller lithobiomorphs and geophilomorphs to about 30 cm (12 in) in the largest scolopendromorphs. Centipedes can be found in a wide variety of environments. They normally have a drab coloration combining shades of brown and red. Cavernicolous (cave-dwelling) and subterranean species may lack pigmentation, and many tropical scolopendromorphs have bright aposematic colours.
Worldwide, an estimated 8,000 species of centipedes are thought to exist, of which 3,000 have been described. Centipedes have a wide geographical range, where they even reach beyond the Arctic Circle. They are found in an array of terrestrial habitats from tropical rainforests to deserts. Within these habitats, centipedes require a moist microhabitat because they lack the waxy cuticle of insects and arachnids, therefore causing them to rapidly lose water. Accordingly, they are found in soil and leaf litter, under stones and dead wood, and inside logs. Centipedes are among the largest terrestrial invertebrate predators, and often contribute significantly to the invertebrate predatory biomass in terrestrial ecosystems. Only one species, Scolopendra cataracta, is known to be amphibious and is believed to hunt aquatic or amphibious invertebrates.
Millipedes are a group of arthropods that are characterised by having two pairs of jointed legs on most body segments; they are known scientifically as the class Diplopoda, the name being derived from this feature. Each double-legged segment is a result of two single segments fused together. Most millipedes have very elongated cylindrical or flattened bodies with more than 20 segments, while pill millipedes are shorter and can roll into a ball. Although the name “millipede” derives from the Latin for “thousand feet”, no known species has 1,000; the record of 750 legs belongs to Illacme plenipes. There are approximately 12,000 named species classified into 16 orders and around 140 families, making Diplopoda the largest class of myriapods, an arthropod group which also includes centipedes and other multi-legged creatures.
Most millipedes are slow-moving detritivores, eating decaying leaves and other dead plant matter. Some eat fungi or suck plant fluids, and a small minority are predatory. Millipedes are generally harmless to humans, although some can become household or garden pests, especially in greenhouses where they can cause severe damage to emergent seedlings. Most millipedes defend themselves with a variety of chemicals secreted from pores along the body, although the tiny bristle millipedes are covered with tufts of detachable bristles. Reproduction in most species is carried out by modified male legs called gonopods, which transfer packets of sperm to females.
First appearing in the Silurian period, millipedes are some of the oldest known land animals. Some members of prehistoric groups grew to over 2 m (6 ft 7 in); the largest modern species reach maximum lengths of 27 to 38 cm (11 to 15 in). The longest extant species is the giant African millipede (Archispirostreptus gigas).
Among myriapods, millipedes have traditionally been considered most closely related to the tiny pauropods, although some molecular studies challenge this relationship. Millipedes can be distinguished from the somewhat similar but only distantly related centipedes (class Chilopoda), which move rapidly, are carnivorous, and have only a single pair of legs on each body segment. The scientific study of millipedes is known as diplopodology, and a scientist who studies them is called a diplopodologist.
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