Part 1: Millipedes and Centipedes
Contrary to what their names imply, centipedes and millipedes do not have 100 or 1,000 feet. Millipedes have two pairs of legs per body segment, while centipedes have one pair of legs per body segment. These distantly-related groups are widespread and abundant. They are found on all continents except Antarctica, and as far north as the Arctic Circle. Both centipedes and millipedes consist of thousands of species, and there can be numerous individuals present in one area, particularly in moist forests.
Most millipedes have rounded bodies and a dark brown exoskeleton. They burrow into the soil in damp places, like under leaf litter or stones, where they eat dead plant material. In general, they pose no danger to humans, although they can secrete a substance that is irritating to the skin. When disturbed, they will curl up in a spiral to protect themselves.
Similar to millipedes, centipedes live in moist environments such as under leaf litter, stones, or decaying woody debris. Unlike millipedes, centipedes have flattened bodies and poisonous claws that they use to attack their invertebrate prey. Fortunately for us, the claws of most centipedes are not strong enough to pierce the outer layer of human skin. Some larger species can bite, however, so picking one up is not recommended.
While wormlike animals with lots of crawly legs that come out at night and carry toxic or irritating substances might sound like a good basis for a horror movie, millipedes and centipedes are essential parts of nature. Millipedes break dead plant material down to sizes that bacteria and fungi can digest, ensuring nutrient cycling in the ecosystem. They also serve as an important food source for many insects, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals, as well as centipedes! Centipedes serve as nature’s pest control, keeping populations of insects and other arthropods in check.
So the next time you happen upon a centipede or millipede while walking through your habitat, give a jaunty wave and thank them for all they do for the ecosystem.