Roughly a week ago the University of Maryland hosted a training session for arborists and landscapers. Part of the entertainment during the continental breakfast was an exhibition of live arthropods. One of the real hits of the show was the giant millipedes from tropical Africa. These behemoths are found in the warm tropical forests where they bulldoze through leaf litter and soil in search of decaying plant material. Contrary to their name, millipedes do not actually have one thousand legs. Actually, if one were to buy shoes for all of their tiny feet, between 40 to 400 pairs would do the trick depending on the species. Most body segments with legs bear two pair rather than a single pair as would be found on their kin the centipedes. This is an easy way to tell centipedes from millipedes next time you happen on one in the garden.
Millipedes as pets
The vegan diet of the giant millipedes is one of the reasons they are so easy to keep as pets. In captivity they thrive on a diet of lettuce leaves, bananas, melons, and cucumbers. A simple terrarium partially filled with soil, peat moss, and decaying leaves is fine. Forests in which they evolved are quite humid and it is best to keep their terrarium moist. An occasional spritz from a sprayer to moisten the soil and a shallow dish of fresh water will provide them with humidity and a welcomed drink. Giant millipedes are not cannibalistic and several can be raised in a single cage as long as it is kept clean and well stocked with food. Don’t be surprised if, after several years, you are blessed with many small millipedes. Giant millipedes breed well in captivity. Giant millipedes are also pets of commitment. In captivity, they are known to live ten or more years.
How does an animal so large and apparently so defenseless protect itself from hungry lemurs and birds? The primary defense of the millipede is to curl into a tight ball and protect its tender underbelly. The plates on the back and sides of the millipede are sturdy. Many species of millipedes also wage chemical warfare as a method of defense. Several species bear glands lining the margins of their body. Different species secrete a variety of noxious chemicals such as quinones, phenols, and hydrogen cyanide when provoked. These chemicals are repellent and deterrent to insects and small animals. It is always a good idea to wash your hands after handling these critters. We visited other rather dinky millipedes and centipedes in a previous episode of Bug of the Week, What lies beneath the mulch II. Giant African millipedes reach a remarkable size and can exceed 10 inches in length. However, fossils remains of relative called Arthropleura have been found in a fossil bed in Nova Scotia. This giant was roughly six feet long. Now that sounds like a millipede on steroids. Imagine tripping over one of those on the sidewalk at night!
The wonderful book "For Love of Insects" by Tom Eisner was used as a reference. We thank Earlene Armstrong for allowing us to photograph her giant millipedes and Ellery for letting them crawl on her hands. For more information on the biology and care of giant millipedes, please visit the following web sites.