"Truth must necessarily be stranger than fiction,

for fiction is the creation of the human mind and therefore congenial to it."

    Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936)

    Catholic apologist, essayist, novelist, poet

 

Puerto Rican giant centipede, Scolopendra angulata. Maricao State Forest, western Puerto Rico.

 


 

Fearsome Claws

 

CLASS CHILOPODA: CENTIPEDES

 

    Centipedes are superficially similar to millipedes, and are indeed distantly related to them. However, unlike millipedes, all centipedes are carnivores that mostly feed on other invertebrates. They can also scavenge, taking advantage of dead animals that they find while prowling. They subdue their prey through a unique mechanism consisting of a first pair of legs (called "forcipules") modified into strong and needle-sharp pincers that look like fangs. With such, they puncture the exoskeletons or skins of their prey and inject their venom, which paralyzes their victims in seconds. Since a centipede's weapons are modified locomotive appendages its sting is not a true bite but, rather, a sort of venomous "pinch".

 

    Their common name ("hundred feet") does not hold true for most species. However, some species of the order Geophilomorpha do have up to 200 legs, given their extremely elongated bodies divided into very many segments.

 

Order Notostigmophora: Common Centipedes

 

    The members of this order are rather small centipedes with very short bodies elongated legs. Some species have well-developed compound eyes, by comparison to the far larger but almost blind scolopendromorph centipedes. Most varieties are harmless to humans, due to their tiny size.

 


Centipedes, Sphendononema guildingii.
First photograph: Maricao State Forest, western Puerto Rico. (Courtesy of Mr. Mel Jose Rivera).
Second photograph: Pico Diego de Ocampo Nature Reserve, north-central Dominican Republic, Hispaniola.


Order Geophilomorpha: Thread Centipedes

 

    The members of this order are often tiny and extremely thin. They are the only centipedes that truly live up to the group's name, for indeed some species have more than a hundred pairs of legs. Most are too small to pose any threat to humans, yet one of the longest centipedes known, Himantarium gabrielis, belongs to this group and is more than 20 centimeters in length. True to their fossorial habits all of these species are totally blind.

 

Geophilomorph centipede, species undetermined. Windsor, north-central Jamaica.



This is the largest geophilomorph centipede I have seen in my life, and yet it was barely 5 centimeters in length. Species undetermined.
Guanica State Forest, south-western Puerto Rico.

 

Order Scolopendromorpha: Giant Centipedes and Their Kin

 

    While most centipedes are small and rather harmless, some species of the order Scolopendromorpha can reach more than 20 centimeters in length. Normally their venom is not life-threatening to a healthy human, but being stung by one can still be a very painful and disagreeable experience. In fact, the specific symptoms produced by their venom is called "scolopendrism".

 

    Large centipedes can be fast and possess very quick reflexes that require lots of caution when dealing with them. They can go from being totally motionless to attacking anything that moves near them with appalling speed.

 

    Together with some of the larger spiders, scorpions, and other venomous invertebrates, centipedes have recently earned a place among animal enthusiasts who seek exotic and unusual pets to keep. However, unlike those others, centipedes can be notoriously unpredictable and ill-tempered. While one may frequently handle, say, a tarantula or whip scorpion with ease, attempting to do the same with a large scolopendromorph centipede might be a bad idea.

 

    Many of these creatures possess vivid hues of reds, oranges, yellows, blacks, greens, and blues. These aposematic patterns, as with some millipedes, insects, snakes, and other animals, serve to identify their owners as dangerous animals.

 

One of the several giant centipedes of the Caribbean: the Puerto Rican Scolopendra angulata.

First photograph: Maricao State Forest, western Puerto Rico.

Second photograph: Florida, north-central Puerto Rico.

The bases of the sharp pincers (actually a modified first pair of legs) of this individual can be seen besides the flat and almost circular head in the second individual.

The pain it causes can be intense and may last for hours, but the venom is seldom, if ever, fatal to healthy humans.

 

    Besides their bright colors and irritable dispositions, which alone may deter an attacker, many centipedes of this order exhibit the habit of raising the posterior end of their bodies and erecting the last pair of legs high in the air when they feel threatened. This has led many people to mistakenly believe that the animal's sting is in its rear. However, even if attacked from the back, the animal can still surprise its enemy by quickly clinging to it with its last legs and bending backwards, bringing the real business end of itself into action.

 


Giant centipede, Scolopendra sp. Jaragua National Park, south-western Dominican Republic, Hispaniola.

 


Being large and ferocious is sometimes of no avail against the small and weak.

This Scolopendra sp. recently molted and is now being attacked by ants.

Cartagena Lagoon National Wildlife Refuge, south-western Puerto Rico.

 

Giant centipede, Scolopendra sp. Crown Mountain, Saint Thomas, United States Virgin Islands.



Scolopendra sp. Windsor, north-central Jamaica.


Some scolopendromorphs are rather tiny. This is an adult female Scolopocryptops sp., only four centimeters in length.

Fort Buchanan, Guaynabo, north-eastern Puerto Rico.

 

Scolopendromorph centipede, possibly Scolopocryptops ferrugineus. Fort Buchanan, Guaynabo, north-eastern Puerto Rico.

 

    Scolopendromorph centipedes will attack any prey of suitable size. These include slugs, earthworms, insects and spiders of all sorts, and even other centipedes. The largest species are perfectly capable of subduing and devouring vertebrates like frogs, lizards, and even mice and small birds and bats. The animal will tightly hold on to its victim with several pairs of legs while using its double stingers to kill it.

 

    The females of many species of centipedes, especially those of the orders Scolopendromorpha and and Lithobiomorpha, take care of their eggs and young. This behavioral trait, unusual among invertebrates, ensures that the next generation has a better start in life, as they are protected from potential predators by their mothers.

 

Puerto Rican giant centipede, Scolopendra angulata, females, guarding their eggs and hatchlings under rocks. Guilarte State Forest, west-central Puerto Rico.

Parental care of eggs and offspring is a rather rare event among invertebrates.

 

Scolopendromorph centipede hatchlings, species undetermined. Polo, south-western Dominican Republic, Hispaniola.