Millipede Facts: They Eat Their Way to Soil Health

In the mysterious world of Earth’s creatures, millipedes hold a special place. With their numerous legs, they play a vital role in nature’s recycling system. Let’s delve into the captivating world of millipedes to find out their fascinating facts and satisfy your curiosity about these extraordinary arthropods.

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Phylum: Arthropoda
Class: Diplopoda

1. Millipedes Were the First land-dwellers

The millipede looking like a worm is a member of the Diplopoda class. They are ancient arthropods that have undergone an impressive adaptation from an aquatic environment to life on land. Evidence from fossil records indicates that they were the pioneering creatures to venture into air-breathing. A significant find in this regard is the fossilized specimen known as Pneumodesmus newmani.

Discovered in 2004, this extraordinary organism, which is a mere 1 cm long, has persisted throughout an extensive timeline, spanning from the Paleozoic era around 252-541 million years ago, all the way to the present day.

2. They don’t Have 1,000 Legs

Millipedes, despite common misconception, do not belong to the insect family. Like the woodlouse, they share a closer evolutionary relationship with lobsters, shrimp, and crayfish. The term “millipede” originates from the Latin language, meaning “a thousand feet,” although they do not possess such an extensive number of limbs.

Typically, they have a leg count ranging from 34 to 400. However, there exists a particular species known as Illacme plenipes, a member of the siphonorhinid millipedes, which astonishingly boasts up to 750 legs, surpassing all other living creatures on Earth in terms of limb quantity.

These feet are distributed along their body’s underside. They have cylindrical or slightly flattened bodies that are divided into segments. There are no legs on the head segment, one pair of legs each on the following three segments, and two pairs of legs each on the subsequent segments.

Characteristics: They dont’ have 1000 legs

Nevertheless, upon hatching, these species possess only 3 pairs of legs. During their growth, millipedes engage in a molting process known as anamorphic development. Each molt leads to the addition of more body segments and legs.

Millipedes possess an exoskeleton, distinguishing them from worms, antennae, simple eyes known as ocelli, and a solitary maxilla. Nearly all millipede orders boast a protective covering of calcareous dorsal plates.

There exist 7,000 distinct millipede species across the globe, with 1,400 of them found in North America and Canada.

The dragon millipede is a spiny pinky millipede with and toxin.

Among many types, the African giant black millipede (Archispirostreptus gigas) is the largest and longest species of all, with a size of about 33.5 cm in length. In contrast, the duff species is one of the smallest millipedes with a size of 2 – 4 mm.

Some species in the genus Motyxia are bioluminescent millipedes. They glow in the dark and cannot see things. The special thing is that they all live in California, the US.

They display a wide range of body shapes and sizes, varying from as tiny as 2 mm to approximately 35 cm in length. Their body can possess anywhere between 11 to over 3,000 segments. The creatures display shades of black or brown, although a few species exhibit vivid colors (red, yellow, black, scarlet, blue, golden, and orange) and certain ones possess aposematic hues as a warning of their toxicity.

3. Diet

Millipedes predominantly eat decaying organic substances such as deceased timber, leaves, and vegetation. Much like earthworms, they play a significant role in enhancing soil and organic matter health by gradually traversing through them and decomposing dead plant matter.

A millipede is eating

These organisms serve as decomposers, playing a pivotal part in the crucial process of organic matter decomposition. They contribute significantly to the recycling of nutrients by breaking down organic materials and returning them to the soil. This is good for plants.

Nonetheless, there are instances where they may consume live plant seedlings or subterranean plant components. In situations of excessive millipede populations, they can cause potential damage to gardens.

Although eating plants, millipedes also consume small insects, woodlice, earthworms, snails, and slugs like the banana slug.

4. Habitat

Millipedes come from all over the world, exception of Antarctica. They like to inhabit environments rich in moisture and humidity, such as gardens, forests, jungles, agricultural lands, and lawns. They are found in diverse ecosystems, spanning alpine regions, caves, coniferous forests, seashores, and deserts. With their incredible adaptability, these extraordinary beings can thrive across a wide range of altitudes, from sea level to lofty mountain peaks.

These species tend to live outdoors. However, there are times when they might enter your houses in search of water or shelter, especially in cooler weather or heavy rainfall. They can also be triggered by mating instincts. They effortlessly climb walls and enter your houses through cracks in the foundation above ground level.

A millipede in soil

When entering homes, they often seek refuge in areas with moisture and dampness such as basements, bathrooms, door thresholds, and crawl spaces. These places allow them to absorb water through their permeable cuticle to prevent dehydration.

If you see them in your houses, can wait for them to be out or get rid of them with a broom/vacuum or by hand. These creatures have a limited survival time in dry conditions commonly, so the infestation is quite short.

Fact: Spiritual meaning
The millipede holds deep spiritual significance in many cultures. It is associated with resilience, protection against evil spirits, connection with the Earth, healing, and transformation. Symbolically, the millipede represents patience, flexibility, balance, and harmony.

In African culture, it is seen as a symbol of protection and guidance, while Native Americans view it as a lesson in hard work and community. In Chinese culture, it is associated with luck and prosperity. Dreaming of a millipede can indicate transformation, overcoming obstacles, or the need to connect with nature. As a spirit animal, the millipede represents adaptability, grounding, and perseverance.

5. They have distinct defense mechanisms

Millipedes encounter a variety of predators in their native environment, including shrews, birds (including domestic chickens), ants, hedgehogs, scorpions, badgers, spiders, toads, reptiles (such as lizards, giant salamanders, geckos, and monitors), and ground beetles.

These species can’t sting, bite, or engage in direct confrontation with predators. That’s why they have evolved multiple defense mechanisms to protect themselves.

A millipede rolls up

The top side of millipedes is safeguarded by rigid plates known as tergites, while their underside is exposed and susceptible. Due to their sluggish nature, they can run away to escape from predators. When they detect potential threats, they swiftly coil their bodies into a tight spiral, effectively guarding their vulnerable bellies. A millipede can also curl up when they’re dead.

Certain individuals possess covert chemical weapons known as ozopores, which are stink glands. These specialized glands release bad smells and a noxious substance to repel enemies.

Furthermore, certain species generate harmful substances that can induce mild discomfort, itching, skin burns, blisters, or blisters upon contact. Take the yellow-spotted millipede for example. This black and yellow millipede possesses the capacity to synthesize hydrogen cyanide—an extremely toxic compound that was employed as a weapon in World War I.

If you expose to a significant quantity of millipedes and their toxins, you can nauseate and vomit.

This is why certain animals employ millipedes as a natural defense against insects. It has been observed that birds crush yellow-banded a.k.a bumble bee millipedes and apply their secreted toxins to their wing feathers as a method of repelling insects. Similarly, monkeys like capuchins have been witnessed capturing millipedes and using their secretions to fend off mosquitoes and other pests. Furthermore, lemurs also consume these species as indigestion medicine.

If you accidentally touch the substance, you should clean the affected area with water and use utilizing creams to relieve any discomfort.

Some species don’t have an armored exoskeleton or odiferous glands. Instead, their bodies are adorned with abundant bristles. The polyxenus fasciculatus is a typical example. This species uses tufts of bristles equipped with hooks and barbs that effectively latch onto the ants. This entanglement causes the ants to eventually cease their attack, and in some cases, heavily contaminated ants may even perish.

Studies have revealed that extracts derived from the Spirobolus bungii millipede exhibit the potential to impede the growth of cancer cells in humans.

6. Behavior

These creatures display a range of social behaviors, such as swarming and clustering. During hunting or the mating season, specific millipede species have been observed gathering in clusters. Interestingly, even young form clusters as a way of defense against predators.

During migration, millipede clusters become massive with multiple layers of individuals stacked on top of each other. The uppermost millipedes seem to lead the way while the ones beneath them crawl, creating a forward motion effect. This clustering behavior also protects the millipedes within the cluster from insects like ants.

To sense and perceive the surroundings, these arthropods use antennas on their heads. With the antennae, they can detect pheromones, odors, and chemical secretions, communicate with their peers, sense changes in temperature, find water sources, and taste food.

Millipedes can swim, although they are not good swimmers. They paddle with their multiple legs and can even move backward. These species can stay underwater for 2 days, but they struggle after 24 hours. Their exoskeleton has pores for absorbing oxygen from water. Some species can even survive underwater for 11 months during floods.

They have mutualistic and commensal relationships with other species, such as mites and mosses.

Millipedes are not dangerous and pose no threats or risks. On the contrary, these extraordinary creatures contribute significantly to ecosystems. Nevertheless, there are a few species that can be problematic. One example is the spotted snake millipede, which is regarded as a pest because it can harm root crops like sugar beets.

7. Millipedes vs Centipedes

Despite their superficial similarities, these two creatures possess unique traits and exhibit different behaviors.

Difference between centipedes and millipedes
Appearance– Flattened body
– Long antennae
– Rounded body shape
– Short antennae
Legs– One pair of legs on each segment
– Easy to see
– 15 – 177 pairs of legs
Each body segment possesses two pairs of short legs.
– Tuck under the body, hard to see
– 40 – 400 pairs of legs
DietSpiders, insects, worms, other arthropods, and even frogs– Dead plants and vegetation
MovementsMove fastMove slowly
Interactions with humansVenomous and can biteHarmless and cannot hurt you

8. Reproduction

To mate with a female millipede in the mating season, the male has to be gentle because the female frequently interprets the male’s approach as a danger and responds by tightly curling up. And this is hard for the male to deliver his sperm.

Nevertheless, certain males employ tactics to surmount these challenges. They employ various strategies, such as walking on the female’s back and utilizing their feet to administer a soothing massage, making her relaxed. Some even emit a tranquilizing sound referred to as stridulation while others utilize sex pheromones to stimulate the female’s interest.

Two small species are maitng

When a female doesn’t like the male, she typically curls up to hinder the transfer of sperm from males. When a female is ready to accept the male, he will use his specialized legs known as gonopods to deliver his sperm packet to her reproductive organ. However, in some species, males employ distinct strategies for depositing their sperm.

For instance, instead of directly transferring sperm to the female, certain males create a web on which they deposit their sperm. The female then collects the sperm from the web and inserts it into her reproductive organ. Another intriguing example can be observed in pill millipedes, where the male releases a specialized sperm packet near its head. This packet is then passed from foot to foot until it reaches the female’s reproductive organ.

(In most millipede species, the regular legs are replaced by specialized structures called gonopods on the 7th segment. In males, these gonopods can manifest as either short stumps or a complete absence of legs.

After mating, the female millipede digs into the soil to build nests for egg-laying. Some even use their own feces, which contain decomposed plant material, to construct protective capsules for the offspring. In some instances, they shape the nest by pushing soil using their hind end.

Depending on the species, the female millipede can lay anywhere between 10 and 300 eggs in the nest. After approximately one month, the eggs hatch.

The young molts many times before becoming an adult

To reach adulthood, young millipedes must go through 7-8 instars, which can take 2-5 years. At each stage, they molt, gaining more legs and segments. This transformation process can span several years. During this time, the juvenile millipedes primarily reside in the soil, where they feed on decaying plant matter or fungi.

After reaching their full size, the juvenile millipedes will leave the soil and emerge on the surface to find food. Compared to other arthropods, millipedes have a long lifespan. Their slow and methodical lifestyle, combined with their ability to blend in as decomposers, contributes to their extended longevity. In the wild, millipedes are estimated to live for about 10-11 years.

The badplaas black, ruby-legged black, and zululand black millipede, among other species, are currently classified as endangered due to the detrimental effects of pollution and habitat loss.

9. They can be kept as pets

Don’t be surprised! This arthropod is one of the best exotic pets in the world. You can choose different small species or huge ones like the African giants. Here are the basic guides on how to take care of millipedes.

Housing: Millipedes necessitate a secure and escape-proof terrarium or enclosure to ensure their safety. The tank should have dimensions that are at least three times the length of the largest millipede, and it should be equipped with a sturdy lid to prevent any potential escapes.

These species can live together, usually with similar-sized individuals. However, in some cases, different sizes or even different species can coexist peacefully if they are not overcrowded.

Substrate and Shelter: Prepare a layer of potting soil or earth approximately 15 cm thick as the substrate, and incorporate various hiding places like aged wood, tree bark, stones, half a coconut, and moss.

A millipede is held in hand

Temperature and Humidity: To maintain suitable humidity levels in the terrarium, moisten the substrate with water as needed. Keep the temperature at a consistent 25oC with a lamp or heat mat.

Diet: Millipedes are herbivorous creatures with a diverse range of food preferences. They have the ability to consume various items, including fruits like bananas and strawberries, mushrooms, vegetables, moistened dry cat and fish food, as well as rotting wood and leaves.

However, it’s important to note that different millipede species may have specific dietary requirements. Therefore, for comprehensive information regarding their care, it is advisable to conduct thorough research on the specific millipede species you intend to keep. This will ensure you provide them with the appropriate diet and meet their specific needs.



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