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2014-05-15

- In The Wild - Centipede? Millipede?

By Carolyn B. Edwards

If you haven't been startled by the sudden appearance of a fast-moving multi-legged creature yet, it's only a matter of time. Giant Red Headed Centipedes are common in the Texas Hill Country, and like the mother in Everybody Loves Raymond, will come right into the house without bothering to knock!
Are they centipedes, or are they millipedes, many ask? If you get close enough, you can count the number of pairs of legs per segment. Centipedes have one pair, millipedes have two. The centipedes' legs are also attached at the sides of the body segments, while the millipedes' appendages erupt from the midline beneath the bug.
The Giant Red Headed Centipede is predatory and venomous. Their bite can be life threatening to a small child or anyone with an allergy to bee stings. Most online sites indicate the bites may cause severe swelling and irritation. If the swelling worsens or other symptoms of anaphylactic shock appear, seek medical attention immediately. Some reports indicate that the multiple legs may make tiny cuts in human skin, which can become irritated.
While many people may have a catch-and-release policy toward some creatures that get in the house, like certain spiders, there doesn't seem to be much kindheartedness available for scorpions and centipedes!
GRHCs are colorful arthropods, with the orangy red head poised at the end of its dark black segmented body, outlined with 21 or 23 pairs of bright yellow legs (the rearmost pair are mostly black with yellow tips and look somewhat like a pair of stingers). The first pair of legs are modified into claws which capture prey and inject the poison.
GRHCs average six and a half inches in length, and may reach nine inches. As they rapidly scoot across your floor, it's not at all unusual to estimate their length to be considerably longer. I would swear the ones that have come into my house were at least a foot and a half long before disappearing under the bookcase!
The giant centipedes eat mostly smaller arthropods, but some have been found eating toads, small snakes and other vertebrates. Moths are a favorite meal.
According to the University of Arkansas Arthropod Museum, "the prey is captured and killed or stunned with the poison claws. Poison glands are located in the basal segments of the claws or fangs.... Each gland drains its toxic contents through a small opening near the tip of the fang."
The museum website cites the bravery (or stupidity, depending upon your point of view) of a Dr. Baerg, who, in the 1920s allowed a centipede to bite him for about four seconds. Baerg reported experiencing a sharp and local pain that began to go away in about 15 minutes, but there was some swelling of the finger and a bit of residual pain that lingered for a couple of hours.
Baerg also reported an unsubstantiated incident of a Confederate soldier who allegedly died in horrible agony after a GRHC walked across his body as he lay sleeping in his tent. While almost every online resource cited this story, no recorded incidents of death by centipede were found by me to have occurred since 1865.
GRHCs are good mothers, laying their eggs in rotten wood and winding their bodies around the egg mass until they hatch. They then keep an eye on the juveniles when they hatch. The GRHC can live as long as six years.
In addition to having more legs, millipedes have more cylindrical bodies than centipedes and curl up onto a spiral when threatened. They look like a long version of the pill bugs or roly polys so common in our gardens.
Both bugs can be discouraged from entering the home by removing compost piles, wood piles and stones away from the foundation. Mulched flower beds next to the home should have the mulch turned from time to time to dry it out. A boundary of stones around the perimeter and the use of boric acid or diatomaceous earth can be effective.
As scary as the GRHCs can appear, however, it's good to remember that they are effective controllers of insects.