THE HOUSE CENTIPEDE

  • The head of the house centipede (left) and the tail (right) are extremely similar in appearance. This photo was taken while the centipede was in an old jelly jar. For the Recorder/Bill Danielson

For the Recorder
Published: 11/9/2020 9:29:23 AM

Most of my wildlife adventures occur outside. The fields, forests, rivers, ponds and meadows of the area have provided me with an endless supply of ideas and topics for discussion and I have relied on that sort of diversity for the entirety of my writing career.

A smaller number of adventures have occurred inside, but they have been just as interesting.  

Jumping spiders in my office windows, bats in my garage, birds that are brought in from the cold while they recover from window strikes; there have been plenty of examples over the years.

This week, however, I have a different sort of adventure to share.  It was an indoor adventure, but it wasn’t inside my house. Instead, it was an indoor adventure at work courtesy of a mischievous colleague.

It was the day before Halloween and I was at school. I had gone down to the office where the copy machine resides and when I returned to my desk, I discovered a glass jar sitting there; innocently placed by my friend, Kelly, who works across the hall.  

I looked into the jar and saw something that I had to ponder for a moment. Unfortunately for Kelly, I didn’t jump, yelp, or otherwise freak out at the sight of this creature. The fact remains, however, that I might have easily done all of those things and more for I was looking at a creature that some might describe as “horrible.”

It had so many legs and looked to be something that Harry Potter might have learned about in one of his classes as Hogwarts. It might also have been something that we saw crawling around on Yoda’s refuge of Degobah, or perhaps a denizen of the forest featured in the movie “Avatar.”

The reason I didn’t jump was because the animal was rather small, inside a jelly jar, and somewhat familiar to me.

It was a little arthropod called a house centipede (Scutigera coleoptrata) and I had seen others before.  If my beautiful wife, Susan, had seen this creature, she may have had a conniption. Just the sight of a photo of the centipede caused her to recoil in horror and she begged me to “take it away.”

Had this little creature turned up in our house, we might have had to move.

The interesting thing to consider here, however, is the fact that the house centipede is actually a friend. A predator, the house centipede will aggressively seek out and kill spiders, bedbugs, cockroaches, silverfish, ants, termites and wasps.

It is a nocturnal hunter that relies heavily on its long antennae to make sense of its environment and detect its prey. It also has a particularly interesting body shape with exceptionally long rear legs that mimic the exceptionally long antennae on the head.  

This gives the house centipede the somewhat unsettling appearance of near-perfect symmetry, which makes it hard to distinguish the head from the tail.

The centipede will prowl its habitat in search of prey and when it finds a likely victim it will pounce. It uses those long legs to wrap up and restrain its target and then it will use two specialized front legs (called “forcipules”) to deliver a venomous sting.

Some prey may succumb quickly, while other larger prey animals may be released while the venom takes effect.  

The legs of the house centipede add greatly to the impression of its size. The body is only about 1.5 inches in length, but the legs and antennae give it the appearance of being more like 4 inches long.

However, the fact remains that this is a rather small organism.  

Those “terrifying” stinging legs are not powerful enough to easily penetrate human skin, so house centipedes are generally regarded as harmless. They are very sensitive to drying out, so house centipedes prefer habitats that are cool and damp.

This is a true benefit to humans because many household pests are also attracted by the same sort of conditions.

So, while the first glimpse of one of these centipedes may cause an initial surge of alarm, try to resist the urge to lose your composure.

Instead, try to consider this creature as a cat that is constantly patrolling your garage for other small creatures that may actually be more destructive to your home.

I’ve never seen one of these creatures anywhere other than the high school where I work, but I have occasionally seen other centipedes in my garage and basement.

Try to remember that they are the “good guys,” even if their appearance is a little unnerving.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 23 years.  He has worked for the National Park Service, the US Forest Service and the Massachusetts State Parks and currently teaches high school biology and physics.  Visit www.speakingofnature.com for more information, or head over to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.




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