What You Need to Know About Centipedes and Millipedes (Legs and All!)
NOTE: We haven’t included images of individual species in this article because some people can react negatively to the sight of these creatures. However, we have included source links where you can view species-specific reference images.
Whenever someone mentions they’ve seen a centipede or millipede, do you ever wonder about all those legs? Or maybe you wonder if these slinky creatures are dangerous or venomous? What’s the difference between a centipede and a millipede, anyway, and do they even live in Florida?
American writer William S. Boroughs had extreme feelings on the subject…
“There may be people who like centipedes…Personally, I would regard such an individual with deep suspicion. I have just petted my cat: “And how is this little good cat beast?” Now, what sort of man or woman or monster would stroke a centipede on his underbelly?: “And here is my good big centipede!” If such a man exists, I say kill him without more ado. He is a traitor to the human race.”
Centipedes and millipedes are not the most popular little critters. But do they really deserve such disdain? Read on and decide for yourself as we talk about the differences between the two creatures, if they’re dangerous, and which species you may find living in your Florida backyard.
Centipede vs. Millipede – What’s The Difference?
At a first glance, all you see is a long body and seemingly hundreds of legs whenever you spot a centipede or millipede. You may also notice they’re made up of many individual segments, linking their slinky body into one long wriggling line. But are you looking at a centipede or a millipede?
To tell the difference, examine these characteristics:
- Legs: Centipedes have one set of legs sprouting from each side of each body segment. Millipedes have two sets of legs per segment, directly under the body.
- Diet: Centipedes kill their prey (insects) with venom before eating, while millipedes feed on decaying plant material.
- Body shape and size: Millipedes have a rounder, more spherical “body” while the centipede is flatter and lower to the ground. Some species of millipedes add segments and legs to their body over their lifetime. The Amazonian giant species of centipede can grow up to 12 inches long (Y-I-K-E-S) and prey on mammals, birds, and lizards.
- Danger response: A centipede will bite if threatened and then scuttle away quickly, while the millipede will curl up into a tight coil. They also secrete a strong smell as a defense mechanism against any danger.
Despite their differences, they share some similarities, such as generally poor vision and their preference for living in dark places. Neither are insects nor are they worms. They’re arthropods!
What About Those Legs?
Do millipedes really have a thousand legs, and centipedes a hundred?
How Stuff Works has a rather funny take on it:
It turns out scientists did not choose the Latin prefix in their name, “milli-,” meaning 1,000, as a way to convey the precise number of legs these organisms have. Their colloquial nickname “thousand leggers” is not accurate either.
“I guess the people who were seeing these things and coming up with common names said, ‘Man that’s a lot of legs,'” says Derek Hennen, a Ph.D. candidate in entomology at Virginia Tech who studies millipedes. “It’s a bit confusing, and it’s the same with centipedes. It’s just getting at the fact that they are very leggy.”
Lots of legs. Got it.
Are Centipedes and Millipedes Dangerous to Humans?
The centipede may resort to biting to protect themselves, but the bite is mostly harmless to humans and pets. However, the bigger the centipede, the more painful their bite. Its venom contains certain toxins that can cause severe allergic reactions, especially in people who react badly to bee and wasp stings.
Symptoms of a centipede bite could include:
- Swelling, redness, and pain
- Fever and/or chills
- Swollen and painful lymph nodes
- Racing or fluttering heartbeat
- Itchy skin
The millipede doesn’t bite, but it releases a smelly toxin to deter any perceived predators. While this toxin is harmless to humans, you could possibly have an allergic reaction if you decide to pick one up.
What Species of Centipedes and Millipedes are Found in Florida?
Both millipedes and centipedes can be found here, so don’t be surprised to see them taking up residence in your home or backyard.
Centipedes Found in Florida
The most common species of centipedes found in Florida include the:
- House centipede: This common creature usually only measures 1 inch in length and has 15 pairs of long legs. It’s black and yellow in color and moves quickly, making it a bit tricky to catch. While its appearance may be a bit nightmarish, it’s a very helpful house guest you might not want to squash. Family Handyman has more information.
- Florida blue centipede: Recognized by its bluish-gray color, this guy has pincer-like fangs and grows up to roughly 3 inches long. A bit more aggressive than the house centipede, they may bite if picked up or threatened.
- Bark centipede: A dark reddish-brown body paired with yellow legs, this centipede grows up to 2 inches long. Like the Florida blue, they too will bite if cornered, and picking them up is not recommended.
These creatures love to live in dark, moist places such as your bathroom or basement. You may even find the odd one scuttling around in your kitchen sink, though they mostly come out at nighttime.
Millipedes Found in Florida
While there are about 50 species of millipedes found in Florida, the most common ones you’re likely to encounter are the following:
- Florida Ivory Millipede: Often kept as pets (yes, some people like them after all!), these millipedes are recognized by their dark bodies with lighter-colored underbellies. They have hundreds of tiny legs and feed on vegetables and fruits.
- Yellow-Banded Millipede: Instantly recognized by its dark body, red legs, and bright yellow rings, this creature grows up to 4 inches long. You might encounter these fellas in mulch piles since their favorite food is decaying plant matter. Originally from the Caribbean, the yellow-banded millipede is currently considered to be a beneficial creature.
- North American Millipede: A large millipede with a dark brown body and rust-colored stripes.
Some millipede species migrate in large groups, so don’t be surprised to find hordes of them living in your garden. They like damp and dark living conditions where they can feast on decaying organic plant matter. While millipedes typically stay outside, if their environment becomes too dry, they may start to crawl into your home seeking out dim, moist places.
What To Do With Centipedes and Millipedes In Your House
Generally speaking, millipedes are less “dangerous” than centipedes, so if you spot a gentle millipede, please don’t squash it. They are harmless to you and your pets. Coax them onto a paper towel and take them outside.
How you handle a centipede is likely to depend on the species. If it’s a house centipede, you can leave it be while it patrols your home as an all-natural form of pest control. Other centipedes should probably be gently removed outdoors, but don’t touch them if you want to avoid a painful sting or bite.
While they may not be as cuddly as your cat, these creepy crawlies are fascinating and play a vital role in our natural environment. Please think twice before exterminating, and let them do their bit for Mother Nature.
Todd Stebleton is the owner and operator of Universal Pest Control, a family-owned business for over 25 years in Ormond Beach, Florida. He and his wife Natalie are proud to have built a company focused on conducting business with honesty and integrity: keeping customers first, protecting the environment, and providing trustworthy, personal service.
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