Centipedes, the “hundred leggers”, got their name due to the multiple pairs of legs that run along their body. Found all over the world, centipedes are the one pest that probably everyone would love to get rid of. One of the most common centipedes is the house centipede (Scutigera coleoptrata). Generally yellowish-gray in color, this arthropod can grow up to 1.38 inches in length. What if we tell you there exists a species of centipede that can grow up to 17 inches in length? Believe it or not, it actually exists – thankfully, however, not in our homes. Known as Scolopendra gigantea, they are the largest centipede on Earth. Keep reading to find more about this centipede that lives in caves and catches bats in mid-flight.
The Amazon Forest of South America hosts a centipede that is about the size of a human forearm. The centipede, Scolopendra gigantea, lives in moist, dark, pockets such as caves and hunts using their modified front legs called “forcipules.”
Our Earth contains many dark, warm, and moist cavities where terrifying organisms quietly lurk. The Amazon Forest of South America hosts many such pockets where unnaturally large and dangerous species live. One such phobia-inducing creature is the Amazonian giant centipede, also known as Peruvian giant yellow-leg centipede. Scientifically known as Scolopendra gigantea, it is also found in Brazil, Venezuela, Colombia, Trinidad, and Curacao. As the name suggests, Scolopendra gigantea is the largest centipede ever discovered. A full-grown adult can measure up to 17 inches in length, which is approximately the length of a human forearm.
Like other centipedes of the Scolopendra genus, Scolopendra gigantea‘s body is made up of 21 to 23 visible sections. Each section has a pair of legs. The legs are adapted for fast movement making them swift runners and adept climbers. Their head features a pair of antennae and a pair of modified legs. The modified legs end in sharp claws called “forcipules,” their primary weapon which is used for both self-defense and killing prey. Forcipules have even been found in centipede fossils dating 420 million years ago.
Carnivorous in nature, Scolopendra gigantea feeds on anything that it can kill. Its diet consists of both invertebrates, such as insects and large spiders, and vertebrates, such as mice, lizards, small birds, and even bats.
Scolopendra gigantea are basically carnivores. Since they have poor eyesight, seeing only shadows and lights, they depend on touch and their chemo-receptors for hunting. That’s why their hunting spree usually commences after dark. The long antenna in their head helps them navigate in darkness and stalk victims larger than themselves. Any creature, big or small, that has the unfortunate experience of crossing its path usually ends up as Scolopendra‘s meal. Crickets, worms, and other insects are regular snacks. It also feasts on snails and spiders, including tarantulas.
Scolopendra does not limit its diet to invertebrates. It can also kill lizards, mice, small birds (such as sparrows), frogs (up to 9.5 cm long), snakes (up to 25 cm long), and other vertebrates. While hunting, it snags the prey in one swift motion, penetrates the forcipules in the victim’s body, and injects venom. The venom is so potent that the prey dies after only a brief struggle.
Scolopendra gigantea‘s impressive hunting skill can be seen in the caves of the Amazon Forest where it catches bats mid-flight. In one instance, this ruthless centipede ate a horn-nosed viper from inside as the snake had swallowed it alive.
Cave-dwelling Scolopendra gigantea have amazing predatory skills. Their main prey are the roosting bats that live in these caves. To hunt them, the centipede scales the wall of the cave and perches on its ceiling. It anchors itself to the ceiling using its thick and muscular, rear, half-dozen pairs of legs. These legs have sharp and extra-large claws at the tips which helps them to keep a firm grip. After securing its grip, the centipede swings the rest of its body down. In this position, it hunts both roosting bats and flying bats. With its front legs, Scolopendra can pull a dozing bat off the wall and kill it with the venom from forcipules. Also, whenever a bat happens to fly near its hanging body, it grabs the bat mid-flight, kills, and then devours it.
Scolopendra can not only catch bats mid-flight, but it can also overpower toxic snakes such as Indian coral snakes. One such encounter has been documented by researchers in a 2014 study when they found a juvenile viper being devoured by an adult Scolopendra gigantea. The 20-cm-long viper had swallowed a live 15-cm scolopendra. But instead of being turned into snake food, researchers found that the centipede ate all the internal organs of the snake and then escaped the body by chewing its way through the snake’s body wall.
The venom in Scolopendra gigantea‘s forcipules is a cocktail of some of the most potent toxins. Even though non-lethal to humans, it is enough to stop the heart or mess with the metabolism of other creatures.
Scolopendra gigantea‘s most important weapon is its forcipules and the venom in them. This potent venom contains between 10 and 62 proteins that can stop the heart of small vertebrates and invertebrates. This venom is a cocktail of proteases, acetylcholine, histamine, serotonin (pain mediators), and acts as a cardio-depressant. It is fatal to most of the centipede’s prey.
The venom of Scolopendra is usually non-lethal to a grown-up human. But children can be severely affected by it. In 2014, a four-year-old child died in Venezuela after being bitten by a centipede that was hiding in an open soda can. Later, researchers at Universidad de Oriente confirmed that the specimen was Scolopendra gigantea. People usually don’t die due to Scolopendra bites, but may suffer from fevers, dizziness, cardiac problems, and breathing difficulties. There have been cases of dogs and even people dying after swallowing a Scolopendra by mistake. Scolopendra bites can prove lethal to people who suffer from allergic reactions.
Even though venomous and usually considered terrifying by most people, some keep Scolopendra gigantea as pets. There is one brave owner who even lets his 17-inch centipede run all over his body.
The giant centipede, Scolopendra gigantea, usually instills fear in most people. It is also logical to fear these creatures as they can overpower prey 15 times their size with their venomous bite. But not everyone is repulsed by them. Some centipede enthusiasts even keep them as pets. To keep scolopendra as pets, one needs a secured terrarium. The owner must keep in mind that centipedes are escape artists. They exert tremendous pressure and can squeeze through extremely tiny openings. Also, centipedes are “pathologically unsociable” creatures. So, they must always be housed alone.
But not every Scolopendra owner fears them. Some brave hearts let them roam freely. For example, Neil Cheng, a 26-year-old biology student from Taiwan, lets his 17-inch centipede crawl all over his body. He even strokes its head after feeding it with its favorite food – cat food!