Although “millipede” means 1,000 feet and is a misnomer, these invertebrates typically have between 400 and 750 legs. Millipedes feed on dead plant material like fallen leaves and vegetation, as well as small insects and even other millipedes.
There are about 7,000 kinds of millipedes in the world and 1,400 in the U.S. The most common species is the two-lined millipede (also called a yellow garden millipede), which has two black stripes running along its body.
Millipedes are mostly harmless to people. However, it is best not to pick one up because they often scratch or bite in self-defense. If you do get bitten by a millipede, it will usually swell and get red. Symptoms can include burning, pain, itching, and a rash lasting for hours to days.
They don’t bite, but you shouldn’t pick up a millipede. The yellow garden millipede is one of the most abundant invertebrates, and it is very common in urban areas.
The Millipede Body
Millipedes resemble insects and worms. However, they are most closely related to lobsters, shrimps, and crayfish. Though these creatures live primarily on land, they can also be found in water.
The majority of millipedes have a round, segmented body, and they are divided into more or less differentiated segments. The first three segments of a millipede each have one pair of legs. The least number of legs on a millipede is 22, with the most recorded having 750.
Each segment of the insect body has two pairs of legs called diplosomites. Millipedes have a hard outer shell and are usually brown or black.
A brightly colored millipede is a warning of toxic chemicals that it can shoot from glands located in its legs and abdominal segments. These chemicals can cause a burning sensation and intense pain if accidentally touched. Some poisonous species of millipedes are brightly colored to warn predators not to eat them.
The smallest millipedes are less than one centimeter long, and the largest are close to 30 centimeters long. At the bases of millipede antennae are two small organs known as Tömösváry organs, which can detect air vibrations. Millipedes are very sensitive to touch, and some species can even feel the presence of tiny creatures moving along the ground.
Many millipedes also have eyes located on the side of their head
Millipede Behavior and Biology
Millipedes are nocturnal and primarily scavengers but have been known to take on other roles depending on their circumstances. Most millipedes are harmless to humans, other than the ichthyosaur irritant that they secrete.
During the day, they usually live under decaying leaf litter or inside decaying logs. During the night, they come out to find food, such as decaying plants. They also help decompose and recycle the dead. This may allow for new plants to grow. When they come out at night, that’s when they begin to eat. They will often go after insects, but also other millipedes and even other millipedes! The millipede feeds on dead and decaying vegetation and wood.
Some also eat dead animals such as mice and even other millipedes. Many of these feed on fungi and are not very picky eaters.
Millipedes are effective at burrowing through the soil. They are also good climbers, capable of climbing vertical and even vertical surfaces such as trees and rocks. Surprisingly enough, they can also swim!
The Life Cycle of a millipede
The life span for millipedes can be anywhere from 1-10 years. Males do not have legs on either the seventh or last segments. The legs are folded up and “packaged” under the body. It helps form reproductive structures in the body. Females have sex organs behind the second pair of legs. After mating, most female millipedes lay between 20-30 eggs.
These eggs are usually laid outside the body. Still, others lay their eggs in a nursery chamber carved inside of a rotting log or in moist soil, but these are the minority. Millipedes cast off their hard shell when they get bigger.
Millipedes molt to grow in size. The first time, they get their legs, and each molting event after that, the number of segments increases. Millipedes then consume their old exoskeleton after they molted to prevent them from wasting a source of nutritious food that is important
Fun Interesting Millipede Facts
Among the largest millipedes are the African millipedes, which can grow to about two feet long, and the Amazonian giant millipede, which can be up to 12 inches long. The North American millipede grows to about 10cm and is a yellowish-brown color. It has no poison glands but can curl its body as a defense mechanism to avoid predators.
Females usually lay a single egg in a suitable nest, which is then guarded by the mother until it hatches. The average millipede lives for three years or more, and they can survive a temperature range from below 40 degrees Fahrenheit to as high as 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
Millipedes belonging to the group Motyxia are uniquely adapted to urban conditions and are considered pests when they infest homes. While some Motyxia species eat wood or other plant material, others feed on termites. They can glow greenish-blue at night as a means of attracting mates or could be used to frighten predators.