By Arthur V. Evans
Every now and again I am asked what is my least favorite insect or spider. I really don’t have an answer for this question. But I can say, without hesitation, that my least favorite arthropod is the centipede.
Don’t get me wrong. I think that centipedes are fascinating animals, but every time I happen upon one of the larger species in the Order Scolopendromorpha, I can feel the hair on the back of my neck stand up and a cold chill run down my spine.
A centipede has never bitten me, so my discomfiture is not based on personal experience. But I do know what the larger species are capable of in terms of delivering a painful, yet non life-threatening bite with their powerful fanglike front feet, or gnathopods. Combined with their speed and lithe bodies, centipedes just set me on edge.
Scolopendra heros from southeastern Arizona dining on a young mouse. Note the thick, black gnathopod next below the head.
Scolopendra heros, the largest centipede species in the United States, measures in at a whopping 6.5 inches (16.5 cm). They range from central and southern Arizona east to southwestern Missouri, Arkansas, and Louisiana. This species is extremely variable in color. During the summer, adults are active around the clock and are easily seen in the headlights of a moving car as they cross the highway at night with their fore bodies bobbing up and down.
I used to collect these big bruisers to put on display in Insect Zoo at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. While on the road, I checked their containers often to make that the lids were securely fastened. My travelling companions were regularly warned that if a lid accidentally came off and a centipede was on the loose, I would immediately abandon the vehicle.
Yesterday, while collecting beetles in the Zuni Pine Barrens of the Blackwater Ecological Preserve, I committed a potentially serious faux pas in the field by peeling back some loose bark of a dead loblolly pine tree that was leaning directly over my head.
Hemiscolopendra marginata occurs in Missouri, Oklahoma, and Texas east to Virginia and Florida; it is absent in most of the Appalachians.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a blue-green centipede, Hemiscolopendra marginata, fall from its once-secure perch, its two-inch long body trunk twisting in the air in an effort regain some sort of foothold. Before I could react, it slid across my forearm to the leaf litter below. Or so I thought.
For several seconds my mind raced. What if it didn’t fall on the ground? What if it or another centipede landed on my shoulder? What should I do? What if it got inside my shirt? My now fevered brain began imagining the centipede sinking it’s gnathopods into the soft and sensitive skin of my neck. Or worse.
I stood perfectly still in the bright spring sun filtering through the tall and slender pines, my body tingling all over in anticipation of anything from a crawling sensation to a stabbing pain. The centipede was nowhere to be felt or found. Still, it took me several more minutes to become convinced that my person was centipede-free and begin to feel a sense of relief.
Recounting this event a full day later still gives me the heebie-jeebies!
© 2010, A.V. Evans