Centipedes: a life story.

The state of the universe.
July 18 2011 10:23 AM

Cranky Little Bastards

Taking stock of the centipede.

More revolting creatures: the eel, the skunk, the snapping turtle, the vulture, the tick, the jellyfish, the hyena, the slug, and the mosquito.

Centipede. Click image to expand.
The centipede

The man who walked a cable between the two towers of the World Trade Center said he was calm and unafraid 1,638 feet above the ground, without a net.

What is Philippe Petit afraid of?

"Things with too many legs, and not enough legs." (As he told NPR's Peter Sagel.)

M. Petit was probably thinking first of spiders and snakes, but it's centipedes that go to extremes in the leg department. Eight works for spiders, two seems fine to us, so centipedes, with between 20 and 300 legs, seem to be overreaching. But their limb version came first. They're the Earth's oldest terrestrial animals, zipping around on all-hundreds for the past 450 million years.

Advertisement

Centipedes went the multilegged route for speed in catching prey. The showy statistic is for the house centipede—Scutigera coleoptrata—timed running at 42 centimeters per second. With a body size of just 2 centimeters, this little creature is the cheetah of arthropods. Unlike their relatively benign myriapod cousins, the millipedes, they're meat-eaters.

When they start galloping after some tasty morsel, how do they decide which leg to move first? Did some Ordovician proto-centipede obsess over the matter, and trip over its very many ankles? Like good tap dancers, the ones that survived seem to have gotten the message: Don't overthink it.

A centipede's body hangs from the legs, giving it stability. That speedy house centipede, the little one we're likely to see in the bathtub, shows this form most obviously with its 15 pairs of outrigger legs resembling false eyelashes. All centipedes' multisegmented bodies are extremely flexible, adapted for pursuing things like silverfish and termites in crevices. They're the top predator in their environment of leaf litter, earth, rotting logs, and, in the case of the house centipede, damp basements and drains.

With limbs to spare, centipedes could modify their first pair of legs into fangs. (Most poisonous creatures form their fangs from mouthparts.) These inject a paralyzing venom that contains, among its 30-some components, a kind of meat tenderizer that speeds the paralyzing effect and softens up the prey. As Greg Edgecombe, resident centipede maven at the Natural History Museum in London, put it so vividly, "They homogenize the contents and slurp it out like soup."

Slide Show: Revolting Creatures. Click image to launch.

Centipedes eat various insects, plus worms, spiders, and, sorry, other centipedes. But New Yorkers take note: They also eat cockroaches and bedbugs. Though the fangs of the house centipede, and most of the other small ones, can't pierce human skin, it would take a very tough city dweller to welcome a centipede into bed. (Related cultural note: Rebbie Jackson, elder sister of Michael, made a music video of the song "Centipede," co-starring a tiger, a cobra, and a chorus of young men in black tie. Informed sources say the title refers not to the myriapod but to an orgy involving 100 people. A less cheery, truly gross pop culture phenomenon—the movies Human Centipede and Human Centipede 2—demonstrates that evolution is a lot better than a mad scientist when it comes to creating viable, many-legged creatures.)

TODAY IN SLATE

History

Slate Plus Early Read: The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

Mitt Romney May Be Weighing a 2016 Run. That Would Be a Big Mistake.

Amazing Photos From Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

Transparent Is the Fall’s Only Great New Show

The XX Factor

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada

Now, journalists can't even say her name.

Doublex

Lena Dunham, the Book

More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.

What a Juicy New Book About Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric Fails to Tell Us About the TV News Business

Does Your Child Have Sluggish Cognitive Tempo? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

  News & Politics
History
Sept. 29 2014 11:45 PM The Self-Made Man The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 29 2014 7:01 PM We May Never Know If Larry Ellison Flew a Fighter Jet Under the Golden Gate Bridge
  Life
Dear Prudence
Sept. 30 2014 6:00 AM Drive-By Bounty Prudie advises a woman whose boyfriend demands she flash truckers on the highway.
  Double X
Doublex
Sept. 29 2014 11:43 PM Lena Dunham, the Book More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 29 2014 8:45 AM Slate Isn’t Too Liberal, but … What readers said about the magazine’s bias and balance.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 29 2014 9:06 PM Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice Looks Like a Comic Masterpiece
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 7:36 AM Almost Humane What sci-fi can teach us about our treatment of prisoners of war.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 30 2014 7:30 AM What Lurks Beneath The Methane Lakes of Titan?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.