Scolopendrid Centipedes

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NSW, Australia; photographed after disturbance [4]

The centipede family Scolopendridae is derived from the Greek word “skolópendra” (σκολόπενδρα) referring to the largest of sea monsters, a fearsome creature with a flat crayfish-like tail, hairy nostrils, and numerous feet on its sides for rowing (Aelian, On Animals, ca. 200 AD).

Excerpt from a translation by Scholfield (1959):

“Now in the course of examining and investigating these subjects and what bears upon them, to the utmost limit, with all the zeal that I could command, I have ascertained that the Skolopendra (Scolopendra) is a Ketos (Cetus, Sea-Monster), and of Sea-Monsters it is the biggest, and if cast up on the shore no one would have the courage to look at it. And those who are expert in marine matters say that they have seen them floating and that they extend the whole of their head above the sea, exposing hairs of immense length protruding from their nostrils, and the tail is flat and resembles that of a crayfish. And at times the rest of their body is to be seen floating on the surface, and its bulk is comparable to a full-sized trireme. And they swim with numerous feet in line on either side as though they were rowing themselves (though the expression is somewhat harsh) with tholepins hung alongside. So those who have experience in these matters say that the surge corresponds with a gentle murmur, and their statement convinces me.”

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Scolopendra cetacea, illustrated by Ulisse Aldrovandi (1638) in “De Animalibus Insectis Libri Septem

As nocturnal creatures, centipedes hide in moist soil under rocks and logs during the day to prevent desiccation. Scolopendromorphs lack eyes and instead rely on groups of four ocelli on each side of the head for simple light detection, antennae for olfaction, and legs for tactile sensation. Along with geophilomorphs and craterostigmomorphs, some species have parental care in which the mother curls her body around developing eggs and young offspring for protection. Although some centipedes grow more legs each time they molt, scolopendromorphs develop all their legs as embryos and have a fixed number, 21 or 23 pairs of them. Interestingly, centipedes always have an odd number of pairs of legs since segmentation always increases in doubles. In most centipedes, the legs are slightly longer in each segment as you progress toward the caudal region, probably to enhance locomotion and maneuverability. The last pair of legs are thick, elongated, and equipped with two spine-like protrusions for use in defense, prey capture, and mating. The first segment of these enlarged legs is particularly bulky and sclerotized. They seem almost rock-hard to the touch. Even though centipedes have exquisite adaptations in the cephalic region, I always thought the pincer-like last pair of legs were the neatest feature of scolopendromorphs.

During the night at Fogg Dam I regularly heard these centipedes crawling around briskly and noisily, a sound very difficult to distinguish from a snake moving through the leaf litter. Occasionally I spotted them breaking into termite mounds to feed on the emerging insects. They always have such a distinct searching locomotion, swinging the head wildly from side to side before choosing a path to continue wandering.

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Fogg Dam, NT, Australia, photographed during pursuit [3]
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Fogg Dam, NT, Australia, photographed after disturbance [4] while exhibiting thanatosis
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Komodo island, Lesser Sundas, Indonesia (Scolopendra cf. subspinipes, ~13 cm); photographed after disturbance [4]

Centipedes are voracious predators, using their muscular bodies to overpower invertebrates, reptiles and small mammals. On Komodo island Sphenomorphus forest skinks and geckos (Hemidactylus spp. & Cyrtodactylus spp.) are plentiful and wolf snakes (Lycodon capucinus) common, no doubt making up a great portion of their diet. Scolopendromorphs are heavily built and have two enlarged forcipules to inject venom into prey. Forcipules are actually a modified first pair of legs, so they are not anatomically analogous to mandibles in other arthropods. To subdue prey they wrap their bodies around and hold the prey still with their needle-tipped claws. When I caught this one it firmly gripped and bit into my glove, and I could see some of the venom residue when it released. Once the head was safely restrained I could feel the legs wrap around my bare hand. It was really cool to feel the shield-like dorsum, squishy abdominal segments with a texture similar to a snake’s belly, and sharp sclerotized appendages powerfully clenching my skin. Many of the large Scolopendra can be dangerous to interact with because of their erratic nature and propensity to bite. There are also some reports of medically significant bites from this species. Personally I find centipedes to be one of the most intimidating creatures for their size. Out of all the arthropods I’ve interacted with in the field, it is rare to be able to get a wild Scolopendromorph to relax in my hands.

NSW, Australia (Cormocephalus cf. aurantiipes); photographed after pursuit [3]
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NSW, Australia, photographed ‘in situ’ after lifting rock [1]

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