Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

July 30, 2007

House Pest Guest

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 11:03 am

  Have you ever wondered how a centipede can walk without tripping itself? As a two legged beast that often entangles his own appendages, I have pondered the question. The answer is, for the most part, co-ordination – the legs are put forth in a ripple pattern with each leg firing off a nano-second after the one before or after it. All this is controlled by a tiny prick spot of a ganglion. In the most of these creatures, the legs are short enough so that they don’t overlap that much either. It also helps that centipedes don’t have 100 legs to begin with; despite their name (millipedes do not have a million legs either). We are talking tens of legs here, which is plenty.  For those of us with a larger than pin prick of a brain and only two legs to ripple, centipede pedulation is an admirable thing.

  Unfortunately, admiration is not the reaction that most folks have to a particular centipede that pre-ambulates in our kitchens at night. The sight of a House Centipede dashing off – without tripping – when the light is switched on elicits high noises and tribal dancing on our part.  Often a loose shoe accompanies the routine.  This object is smacked down on the counter or the floor right behind the fleeing creature who hauls abdomen and disappears into the nearest corner.

  House Centipedes came to us from the Mediterranean and were first recorded here in 1849. As perennial uninvited house guests since that time, they go about their nocturnal lives undetected in your walls and under your sink. It is only when they are surprised or find themselves trapped within the smooth confines of a bathtub that we come across them and the primitive dance ensues. Those spider like legs are the problem.  They make them look three times larger and creeper than they really are.  House Centipedes are really good house guests not house pests.

  As respectable centipedes, they have multiple legs (look here and here).  There are thirty in all – 15 on each side- with an extra set modified as fangs.  Each set of legs is longer than the one preceding it.  The rear pair is 2 times the length of the first pair. This not only allows for longer legs and faster speed, but solves the tripping problem in that the foot end of each leg occupies a different part of the race track (or kitchen counter).  Such speed abilities place House Centipedes in the category of “nocturnal raptors” (not rappers). They chase down prey like tiny wolves.

  Two fang-like front legs, called forcipules, are plunged into their chosen victim and paralyzing venom is injected (see face detail here and underbelly view here). Small, but significant mandibles equipped with three teeth each, eventually make the prey disappear.  I don’t normally look at “U Tube” sites on the internet, but just in case you’re interested here’s a short one showing a House Centipede devouring a spider (I warn you, the excitement content is minimal). 

  A list of their prey victims reads like a who’s who of household pests: flies, silverfish, bed bugs, cockroaches, and a few spiders.  Except for the spiders, all of these critters are truly damaging house pests.  So, you see the House Centipede is a friend after all – a creepy looking friend – but a real asset.  We all have a few creepy friends that turn out to be much more valuable than they appear. This rule does not apply to my daughter’s boy friends, however.

 House Centipedes do not bite people and will only do so if severely provoked. Their bite has been equated to a bee sting. There is nothing really dangerous about them.

 If you looked at the pictures, you probably noticed that House Centipedes appear to have very long antennae at both ends of their body.  Actually, the last set of legs are super long and adapted to act like antennae to sense movement.  The real antennae at the front of the head are used for both touch and scent detection.  Add a pair of fairly large eyes (something unusual among centipedes) to the fray and you can see why they react so quickly when discovered.  They see you, the light, the shoe and the corner all at the same time.

  An obscure 1904 reference made an interesting comment regarding the fleeing tendencies of House Centipedes. They appeared to deliberately run at women, according to this piece, because the space under their long dresses provided what seemed to be immediate shelter!  No doubt their innocent attempt to get away was severely misinterpreted.  Today long dresses are out, but we continue to misinterpret the leggy beasts.

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