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.

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5 Responses to “Many legs: The red-headed centipede”

  1. francescolami October 22, 2011 at 7:24 am #

    Awesome critter! Only one thing: I think that “Chilopoda” actually means “One hundred feet”.

    • 6legs2many October 22, 2011 at 11:25 am #

      You’d think, right?
      “Centipede” means “one hundred feet.” However “Chilopoda” comes from the Greek “chilos” or “kheilos” and of course “pod”–literally “lip foot.”

      • francescolami October 22, 2011 at 2:08 pm #

        Sure? My bad! I guess it’s kind of embarassing for me since I’ve studied greek for 5 years with excellent results. On the other hand, I guess it’s kind of normal since I’ve automatically ereased every notion of greek I had in the moment I finished the school.

  2. bugbarb October 22, 2011 at 11:16 pm #

    Wow! Those were some cool pictures. I found a centiped unlike anything I’ve seen. It was close to six inches long, but no larger than a cooked string of spaghetti. It was very pale, sort of a creamy off white. I thought, at first, I had found a nest of them, but as it tried to escape, I realized there was only one.

  3. Dave October 23, 2011 at 12:24 pm #

    The large Scolopendra make great pets – as long as they don’t get out of the terrarium. Then they are hard to catch – amazingly supple and fast. You’d hardly think an arthropod could be so unclunky.

    I think there is one group of centipedes that are not predators, the Geophilomorpha. At least their guts are packed with detritus, so they are eating more than just animals.

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