Centipedes are elongated animals with one pair of
legs per body segment. Despite the name, centipedes can have a varying number
of legs from under 20 to over 300. Centipedes have an odd number of pairs of
legs, e.g. 15 or 17 pairs of legs (30 or 34 legs) but never 16 pairs (32 legs). A key trait uniting this group is a pair of
venom claws formed from a modified first appendage.
Centipedes are a predominantly carnivorous.
Centipedes normally have a drab coloration combining shades of
brown and red. Cave-dwelling and subterraneanspecies may lack pigmentation and
many tropical species have bright colors. Size can range from a few
millimetres to about
30 cm (12 inches). Centipedes can be
found in a wide variety of environments.
Worldwide there are estimated to be 8,000 species of centipedes. Centipedes have a wide geographical range,
reaching beyond the Arctic Circle. Centipedes
are found in an array of terrestrial habitats from tropical
rainforests to deserts.
Within these habitats centipedes require a moist micro-habitat because they
lack the waxy cuticle of insects and arachnids, and so
lose water rapidly through the skin. 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.
Centipedes have a rounded or flattened head, bearing a pair of antennae. They have a pair of
The first pair of limbs stretch forward from the body to cover the remainder of
the mouth. These limbs, or maxillipeds, end in
sharp claws and include venom glands that help the animal to kill or paralyze
Centipedes possess a variable number of eyes,
which are sometimes clustered together to form true compound eyes. Even
so, it appears that centipedes are only capable of discerning light and dark,
and not of true vision. Indeed, many species lack eyes altogether. In some
species the final pair of legs act as sense organs similar to antennae, but
Forcipules are a unique feature found only in centipedes and in no
The forcipules are modifications of the first pair of legs, forming a pincer-like appendage always found just behind the head. Forcipules
are not true mouthparts,
although they are used in the capture of prey items, injecting venom and holding onto captured prey. Venom glands run
through a tube almost to the tip of each forcipule.
The Amazonian giant centipede, is the largest existing
species of centipede in the world, reaching over 12 inches in length. It
is known to eat lizards, frogs, birds, mice,
and even bats, catching them in midflight, as well as rodents and spiders.
Centipedes lay their eggs singly in holes in the soil, the female fills
the holes with soil and leaves them. The number of eggs laid ranges from about
10 to 50. Time of development of the embryo to hatching is highly variable and
may take from one to a few months. Time of development to reproductive period
is highly variable within and among species.
Females centipedees show parental care. The eggs are laid in a nest in the soil or in rotten wood. The female stays with
the eggs, guarding and licking them to protect them from fungi.
The female in some species stays with the young after they have hatched,
guarding them until they are ready to leave. If disturbed, the female will
either abandon the eggs or eat them; abandoned eggs tend to fall prey to fungi
rapidly. In some species the
offspring will eat their mother.
Centipedes are a predominantly predators. They are generalist predators, which means that they have adapted to eat a variety of
different available prey. Examination of centipede gut contents suggest that
plant material is an unimportant part of their diet although centipedes have
been observed to eat vegetable matter when starved during laboratory
Centipedes are mostly nocturnal. They have been observed eating reptiles, amphibians,
small mammals, bats and birds. Centipedes and spiders may frequently prey on one
Centipedes are eaten by a great many vertebrates and
invertebrates, such mongooses, mice, salamanders, beetles and snakes.
Centipedes are found in moist microhabitats.
Water regulation is an important aspect of their ecology, since they lose water
rapidly in dry conditions. Water loss is a result of centipedes lacking a waxy
covering of their exoskeleton and excreting waste nitrogen as ammonia, which
requires extra water. Centipedes deal with water loss through a variety of
Some species of centipede can be hazardous to humans because of
their bite. Although a bite to an adult human is usually very painful and may
cause severe swelling, chills, fever, and weakness, it is unlikely to be
fatal. Bites can be dangerous to small children and those with allergies to bee
stings. The bite of larger centipedes can induce anaphylactic
shock in such people. Smaller
centipedes usually do not puncture human skin.