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Centipedes are arthropods. They belong to the class Chilopoda and the Subphylum Myriapoda. The word centipede is derived from Latin and literally means “hundred feets”. Centipedes are elongated animals with a pair of legs on each section. A distinctive feature besides large number of legs is a pair of venom claws or forcipules formed from a modified first appendage. All centipedes are predatory.
Centipedes can vary a lot in size and the smallest species only reaches a few millimetres in length (genera Lithobiomorphs and Geophilomorphs) while the largest ones can become over 30 cm long (genus Scolopendromorphs). There are some question marks surrounding which is the largest centipede species in the world. Most will however say that it is the Amazonian giant centipede (Scolopendra gigantean) which can grow to more than 30 cm / 12 inches in length. There are however unconfirmed reports of giant centipedes on the Galápagos Islands reaching twice that size. The largest Galápagos Islands giant centipedes in captivity have grown to be a mere 20 cm / 8 inches. It is possible that the reports of large specimens in fact refer to a larger even more rare centipede species on Galapagos. The now extinct members of Euphoberia which once lived in Europe and North America could grow to be 1 m / 40 inches. Some scientists regard these animals as centipedes while others think they are millipedes.
Some centipedes are very beautiful with bright colours but most have fairly dull colorations. Most centipedes display different combinations of brown and red. Centipedes are accomplished hunters and can catch even fast and flying insects. The larger species can even catch bats in mid flight.
There exists about 3,000 described species of centipede but researchers estimate that there might be upwards of 8,000 centipede species in the world. Centipedes can be found almost everywhere on the planet, even in areas with very hostile climates such as within the Arctic Circle. They can be found in all types of environments from rainforest to desert but need access to moist micro habitats within their habitat. Centipedes often play an important role in keeping insects in check in areas where they are found.
Centipedes have interesting mating rituals. The male in many species lays a sperm package on the ground that they then try to get the female to engulf through a courtship dance. The males in other species simply deposit their sperm packages in the forest for the females to find on their own. Centipedes breed all year round in tropical and sub tropical areas. In colder climates they breed during spring and summer. Some centipede species give birth through parthenogenesis and do not need a male.
Some centipedes, e.g. members of Lithobiomorpha and Scutigeromorpha, simply deposit their eggs in holes in the soil and leave them there. Other species like Geophilomorpha and Scolopendromorpha show parental care. The female guards the eggs and keep them free from fungi by licking them. Some species even guard the young centipedes for a while after they have hatched. The most extreme form of parental care can be found in some Scolopendromorpha species where the young ones are matriphagic. In other words, the youngsters eat their mother when they hatch and thereby get a good start in life. Centipedes lay between 10 and 60 eggs depending on the species. The eggs take long to hatch and the hatching time can be anywhere from one to several months. It can take many years for a centipede to reach maturity. The fact that they produce a low number of offspring and mature slowly means that centipede populations have a low resistance level.
Some centipede species have bites that can be dangerous for humans. Some species are venomous with venom strong enough to kill humans, while others can cause anaphylactic shock in people with allergies. The bites can also be very painful.