Today’s post concerns an unlikely ally—an eccentric friend you have most likely maligned (perhaps even to the point of death). How eccentric is this unknown benefactor? Well let’s just say our little comrade has up to 30 legs and likes to run on the ceiling—so, pretty eccentric.
I’m talking about the common house centipede (Scutigera coleoptrata), a myriapod which induces such unreasoning dislike in some people that I am going to avoid describing its extremely interesting physiology, habits, and origin, until after I have told you why you should not promptly step on it. With its many hairy legs and its ability to swiftly scamper along smooth vertical surfaces, Scutigera has a tendency to alarm people into causing it mortal injury. You should never do such a thing! Scutigera is a relentless predator of bedbugs, roaches, termites, ants, silverfish, spiders, and fleas. The house centipede is like a tiger to these truly annoying and dangerous vermin. If you live in a large city it is entirely possible that your dwelling has been saved multiple times from horrible infestations by unloved house centipedes.
Scutigera coleoptrata grows to be 25 mm (1 in) to 50 mm (2 in) in length. They originally lived in the Mediterranean area, but they are successful and hardy and have quickly spread to all six temperate continents as humankind has moved around and built houses. Scutigeras live up to seven years, so before you crush one, you might pause to reflect that it might have lived in your house longer than you have.
You have probably seen a Scutigera running. They move with preternatural agility and are capable of running upside down. If you can divorce yourself from vertebrate-centric feelings of revulsion, you will see an amazing beauty to the rippling motion of their many legs. They always remind me of little Venetian galleys or Byzantine dromons. Like those warships, house centipedes are designed to be formidable. Perhaps we would appreciate them more if we saw the ninjalike grace with which they hunt. They usually jump on their prey and sting it to death with modified front legs capable of delivering venom (evolutionarily unique appendages called forcipules), however they are very nimble and can also lasso smaller arthropods or whip them into submission with their many legs. The forcipules of the house centipede are usually incapable of breaking human skin. If they do succeed in stinging a person (which they don’t undertake lightly–since we are the size of skyscrapers to them) the sting is usually no more painful than that of a bee. Unfortunately a few people are allergic to centipede venom and can have dangerous reactions, so it is best not to handle them.
Scutigera apprehends the world through compound eyes which can see visible light but are even better at viewing ultraviolet wavelengths. Despite their acute vision, they tend to hunt with their long antennae which are extremely sensitive to both vibrations and smells. Their elongated hindlegs have evolved to appear like antennae so that predators have a difficult time telling which direction a centipede will move in, but hopefully I have convinced you to leave them alone so they won’t have to run away from you. More house centipedes mean fewer bedbugs!