The Life and Times of the Average Millipede in North America
Few insects elicit the shriek when stumbling upon this multi-legged creature – whether it is found in the natural world or inside the man-made world. While all bugs and insects (or 'creepy crawlies') have a natural 'creepiness' factor about them, the millipede is much different, courtesy of the many different attributes of its physical appearance.
First of all, the millipede looks a lot like a snake with legs. And when I say legs, I mean DOZENS of them! In fact, the millipede has two legs per body segment. With the average millipede having over a dozen body segments, you can see how the leg count adds up quickly! You have probably already put together the “milli” on the front-end of the work millipede. This is there to give you a hint about the leg count. Their closely related little friend the centipede has one set of legs per body segment; the millipede has – you guessed it – more than one set per segment. If you remember the metric system, the clue was an easy one to spot. It is interesting to note that the most legs found on any millipede were 750! But it's important to note that the average number of legs is between 80 and 100.
Another unique physical attribute of the millipede is their round, dark shape. They are usually black or brown in color, and they are round. While black and brown are the most common colors, they can be yellow and red as well. Millipedes can be up to three inches long. By combining their color, shape, length and their location (that's on the ground and moving quickly towards you), one can see how they are sometimes mistaken for snakes.
Millipede science tidbit #1: Millipedes are not actually classified as an 'insect' in the way most people mean when they use that specific word. Most people know that an insect has six legs, and a spider has eight legs. So what do we call a creepy-crawly-critter with dozens of legs? They are actually referred to as invertebrates. That is, they wear their internal support structure on the outside.
Some people worry that millipedes are poisonous and will harm people or animals. While it is true that millipedes do enter into homes and other habitats where humans are present (think camping), the truth is that they do NOT bite people. Millipedes lack a stinger, pincers and they don't bite. In fact, the preferred food source for millipedes is organic material; things like dead, decaying plant leaves, stems and flowers. They are technically omnivores, meaning they eat anything. As such, they have been observed to consume decaying insects, such as snails, worms and various insects. Millipedes like dark, damp places.
Millipede science tidbit #2: All living things on the planet are given names to help us classify them. The categories are kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus and species. For the millipede, these are: animal, arthropod, diplopoda, spirobolida, spirobolidae, narceus and narceus americana, respectively. Now you just have to wait for the next episode of the hit T.V. show Jeopardy to put that information to good use!
Millipedes are found all around the world. Their natural enemies include birds, badgers, foxes, rats and other small rodents. When threatened, a millipede has two primary defensive maneuvers. The first is to take advantage of its shape and coil itself up into a ball. This keeps the less protected underbelly protected. The second involves a bit of chemical weaponry. When threatened, a millipede produces a stinky smell. This smell comes from glands in their bodies called ozopores. These glands produce a nasty smelling liquid that deters predators. It has been reported that this liquid also tastes bad.
So the next area of curiosity regarding our friend the millipede is to understand their role in our food chain. You remember the food chain, right? It's the idea that every living thing on planet Earth contributes in some way to the living things around it. For example, we know that plants use the carbon dioxide exhaled by humans to further their production of oxygen through the process of photosynthesis. Similarly, when a sick or injured animal falls behind the herd, another animal will consume that animal. So how do millipedes fit into this arrangement? They help to digest fallen plant life, breaking down bacteria and giving back to the environment through the expelling of their own waste back to the soil. It's the circle of life!
Millipede science tidbit #3: like all living things, male and female millipedes must work together to mate in order to continue the existence of their species. To accomplish this goal, millipedes reproduce using their legs! Male millipedes have special legs that are used specifically to move their seed to the female millipede. In fact, the names of this pair of legs is the gonopods, and they are located on the 7th segment of the millipede's body.
One way to tell the age of a rattle snake is by counting the number of rattles present on its tail. The same principal is true for millipedes. When a millipede is first born, they only have three legs. As they grow, they shed their skin and grow a new segment – this new segment brings with it a new pair of legs. Remember the one with 750 legs mentioned earlier? Can you imagine how old he was?
Thanks for reading about the millipede! Pass along some facts to your friends and neighbors so they too can learn about this interesting invertebrate!
If you are having a problem with millipedes around your home or buildings, Alliance Pest Services has a pest control plan to keep your home bug free.