Our Many-Legged Friends

Last weekend, on our class trip to Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre, I was lucky enough to spend some time in my favourite ecosystem: old growth rainforest. During a stroll, we were instructed to take a couple minutes for “zen time”, where we find a corner of the forest to ourselves and quietly meditate on nature. My quiet, meditative stage lasted about three seconds before I was overcome by my neurotic compulsion to find animals, and I began frantically turning over logs and ogling at all the bugs. During this time I found some lovely creatures that inspired me for this week’s post. The Millipedes and Centipedes.

Zen time in the forest.

Millepedes and Centipedes are not insects, but an ancient group of arthropods known as the Myriapods. All myriapods have segmented bodies and have many, many legs. There are however, notable differences between centipedes and millipedes. The following is a guide that highlights these differences with fun facts that are bound to make you the life of any cocktail party and will certainly impress prospective mates.

Millipedes belong to the class Diplopoda. Contrary to popular belief, millipedes do not have 1000 legs. As the name “Diplo-poda” suggests (diplo=2, poda=legs), millipedes are distinguished by the presence of two legs per body segment.

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“Harpaphe haydeniana”, also known as the Yellow-Spotted millipede is a local species that produces sweet almond-scented hydrogen cyanide when disturbed. Amazing something that smells so good could be so deadly!

Millepedes are gentle detrivores. This means they feed on decaying organic material, like dead leaves or fungus, and they play an important role in recycling nutrients on the forest floor. Low on the food chain, millipedes are often eaten by insects, birds, mammals, and amphibians. A frightened millipede is a rather pathetic sight. If you poke one, it will curl up into a little ball and stay “in its happy place” until it feels safe again. Should you continue to torment your victim, you might notice it produces a stinky odour. This is the millipede producing advertising that it is poisonous, meaning it is dangerous if eaten, but cannot actively inject venom.

Centipedes belong to the class Chilopoda. Centipedes do NOT have 100 legs, but are distinguished by the presence of one pair of legs per body segment.

Just look at this proud mother with her brood- how darling!

Centipedes are hard-core predators. Don’t poke a centipede. It might bite you, and it can hurt a lot. Centipedes are venemous, which means that they can actively inject toxins to kill prey or defend themselves. An amazing thing about centipedes is that instead of using mouthparts to inject venom, their front legs are modified into “fang-legs” known as forcipules. Centipedes can grow to huge sizes in the tropics and some even prey on birds and small mammals. There’s even one species in Venezuela that specializes in eating bats! A lot of people are afraid of centipedes, but it should be noted that centipedes have a very gentle side too: they are wonderful mothers. Many species of centipede will tend to their eggs and young for up to two months. They curl around their brood to protect them from harm and groom their babies to prevent the growth of harmful fungi…Adorable! For more on centipedes and millipedes, check out this video of a centipede eating bats and this table summarizing the differences between millipedes and centipedes.

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