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

10 Responses to “TRUE CONFESSIONS”

  1. ROFL—-too funny. I don’t mean to laugh at your discomfort over centipedes, it’s just that I can relate. I’ve been scared outta my skin more times than I can count by various creatures.
    I remember about 19 years ago right after we bought our farm, I discovered a huge cockroach in the kitchen. This was no ordinary cockroach, this was a roach on steroids. I screamed bloody murder, my husband came running to see what all the fuss was about. I informed him I would not live where cockroaches were the sizes of small dogs! He convinced me he could handle the situation and I reluctantly agreed to stay. I was ever watchful of those roaches. I learned later they were Pennsylvania Wood Cockroaches and would not breed in our house. That afforded me some relief….until.
    One night as I walked into the house, one of the larger males, easily a foot long (okay…slight exaggeration) landed on the front of my person. I screamed and flicked it away….or so I thought. As I entered the living room I “felt” something inside my shirt. I pulled the front of my shirt out and peered inside….what did I see? A very large creepy face with big antennae looking back at me! @*&% you never seen a shirt come off so fast. My husband was sitting on the couch watching the show with the most perplexed look on his face. As his hysterical wife ran around the living room shedding clothes. He finally asked me “what the he** is wrong with you?”. The roach flew off somewhere I collapsed in the chair exhausted from nearly having a heart attack. Once the incident was over I began laughing so hard I couldn’t stop, tears rolling down my face. I’m sure my husband thought I went off the deep end….but I will say this cured my fear of those blasted roaches!

  2. I share your visceral gross-out over centipedes. I used to live in Japan and there is a native mukade (centipede in Japanese) species there, Scolopendra subspinipes, that grows to around 8 inches. It’s a horrific beast and I used to see them frequently. Every one of my Japanese friends has a nightmare mukade story about one of them crawling across their faces at night while they slept, a bite in the middle of the night and being sick for days afterward, or feeling one slithering around in the futon and not being able to extract it. WHen it starts to get cold outside, the mukade come indoors and since it’s Japanese tradition to sleep on the floor, the mukade are able to find a warm spot to spend the night. Fortunately, we lived on the 9th floor of an apartment building and they weren’t able to make their way into our beds. Ack! I get the willies just thinking about it.

  3. I once saw a Scolopendra heros in extreme southwest Missouri – unfortunately it was flattened road kill. I’ve been trying to find out if this species has been formally documented from the state – do you have a reference?

    • Arthur Evans Says:

      Scolopendra heros was recorded in southwest Missouri in: Shelley, R.M. 2002. A synopsis of the North American centipedes of the Order Scolopendromorpha (Chilopoda). Virginia Museum of Natural History Memoir 5. 108 pp.

  4. Thanks, Art. I saw mine in 1997, so it may well have been a state record at the time.

    • Arthur Evans Says:

      According to Shelley’s 2002 monograph, the MO records are based on specimens collected in Barry County (1930, NMNH-2), Jasper County (1942, NMNH-1), Stone County (1927, AMNH-1), and Branson County (1940, Eastern Illinois University-1). Maybe you have a county record?

      • Okay, no state record, and I had no idea it had been so well-recorded in the southwestern counties. I might still have the county record, though (McDonald County – the southwesternmost county in the state). It remains the only one I’ve ever seen despite my frequent visits to the glades in that part of the state.

  5. Scolopendra heros is…impressive. One of my students brought one to school in a jar, shoved it enthusastically in my face, saying “Look what I found!” “Yes, dear, you’ve just nearly found your science teacher with a heart attack.”

  6. I share your reaction thanks to actually being bit while peeling back bark. I was collecting on the road to the observatory in the Davis Mountains when I apparently pinched or frightened one sufficiently that he bit my middle finger. Other than some swelling and throbbing for a couple of hours no real harm was done. However, I always have my trusty little pry bar when I am collecting now.

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