Archive | October, 2011

Many legs: The red-headed centipede

21 Oct
A giant red-headed centipede curls on some rocks.

A red-headed centipede (Scolopendra).

Here’s a dramatic local: the red-headed centipede, sometimes called the giant centipede.  These guys are the largest bodied centipede in North America, so they’re good for pretty good startle when you suddenly encounter one beneath a log.  Centipedes belong to the class Chilopoda, meaning “lip foot.”  They get this name from the first pair of legs, which are modified into jaw-like “venom claws,” or maxillipeds.  You can see the thick venom claws curving forward from the first red segment directly behind the head.

A red-headed centipede preys on a cricket.

A red-headed centipede devours a cricket.

Centipedes, unlike herbivorous millipedes, are active predators designed for rapid movement through leaf litter and under logs.  They have only one pair of legs per segment (as opposed to the millipedes’ two) and tend to have dorsoventrally flattened bodies.  I don’t appear to have the small skittery creature freak out gene, but I always forget how creepy I find these guys.  Their particular brand of fast sinuous movement hits me on an instinctive level.  It’s definitely fun to watch them eat.

In this species the long hind pair of legs is modified for grasping.  I also noticed that the centipede seemed to use it as a kind of defensive false head, rearing up the hind quarters when disturbed and raising the legs like antennae.  With the red tone of the final segment it’s a fairly convincing mimic.