A Moment for Millipedes

Just a quick post today – the sun is out and the pools are open!  I did want to take a moment, though, and write about millipedes.

Now, before you go “Ewwww, gross!”  You need to know the following things about millipedes:

  1. Millipedes are vegetarians, not hunters and, as such, they do not bite.  (Centipedes are the ones that bite.  They are not to be messed with.)  They will curl up in your palm as a defense mechanism – tough exoskeleton side out, soft underbelly in and protected.
  2. When you hold a millipede, after it uncoils, you’ll feel one of two things:  nothing, or tickling.  They do not have a thousand legs, as the prefix “milli” implies, but do have two sets of legs per body segment and that can add up to several hundred!
  3. Millipedes are incredibly important because they eat dead leaves and decaying wood and other dead plant matter.  Without them, we’d be up to our ears in fallen leaves from the past gagillion years.  Check out this quote:

“Since the [cyanide-producing] millipede crushes, filters and then recrushes its dead leaf diet, it increases the availability of nutrients 40,000-fold….The cyanide-producing millipede alone eats 33 to 50 percent of all the dead coniferous and deciduous leaves that come to rest on the forest floor. It is one of the most critical links in the entire soil foodweb.”

— From the article Small in Size, but Great in Importance by Dr. Andrew Moldenke

I lead a family nature walk at Falls Ridge Nature Preserve this last Wednesday, and though turnout was low – only one family – it happened to be the family of one of my favorite kids from the SEEDS – Blacksburg Nature Center.  We’ll call him Diego, not his real name, to protect his very important three-year-old privacy.

Diego is awesome.  He loves to be outside and is not afraid of anything.  He will hold any bug you give him and find it cool and/or cute.  Once he knows a bug is safe to hold, he will also go find them and pick them up himself.  This kid is an excellent log roller (one of our favorite activities at the nature center is rolling over rotting logs and checking out all of the tiny animals that live beneath them).

So, on our hike, though most of the spring flowers at Falls Ridge had past bloom and the butterflies were too fast to catch (or get decent pictures of), the universe rewarded Diego and me with millipedes.  Lots of them, and big ones!  (The ones we usually find under logs at the nature center are only about an inch long and skinnier than a piece of yarn.)

Here are the two coolest millipedes we found:

Bright colors, such as yellow and red, warn that an animal is likely poisonous, and this one is - it can secrete cyanide compounds.

Bright colors, such as yellow and red, warn that an animal is likely poisonous, and this one is – it can secrete cyanide compounds.

Apheloria virginiensis

This impressive little fellow has no common name, but is fairly common in southwest Virginia.  Though, again, not dangerous to humans, it is poisonous.  (Quick review:  “poisonous” = makes you ill if you eat it; “venomous” = can inject toxins into you that will make you ill.)  It can secrete enough cyanide compound to kill a small bird or mouse that tries to eat it.  It’s recommended that people wash their hands after handling this millipede so as not to rub any cyanide in their eyes accidentally.  The cyanide compounds it makes are what give this millipede its characteristic almond/cherry smell when it’s handled.  This particular little fellow, however, seemed to use speed in its defense – it crawled over our hands too quickly for me even to snap a picture; I had to photograph it back on the ground.

One more super cool thing about this millipede?  It glows in the dark.  The researchers at Marietta College in Ohio have documented this species as glowing blue under UV light (blacklight).

North American millipedes were all over the forest floor at Falls Ridge.  Several had been crushed by inattentive hikers' feet.  This one, though, was safe at the edge of a trail bridge.

North American millipedes (Narceus americanus) were all over the forest floor at Falls Ridge. Several had been crushed by inattentive hikers’ feet. This one, though, was safe at the edge of a trail bridge.

North American Millipede (Narceus americanus)

If we’re going to select one millipede for the whole continent, this one might as well be it, since it grows to twice the size of any other millipede living in North America.  They mate in spring and females will coil themselves around the one egg they lay in order to protect it; a lot more than other arthropod moms do for their broods!  These millipedes survive the winter inside rotting logs and can live up to 11 years.  When they’re born, they’re only three tiny body segments long, but each time they molt (shed their exoskeleton) they add new segments.

Once our eyes grew accustomed to seeing millipedes, we found them all over the trails and forest floor.  They must be out looking for love in the beautiful spring weather!

The North American millipede all curled up in Diego's little hand.

The North American millipede all curled up in Diego’s little hand.

The North American Millipede crawling on my hand.

The North American Millipede crawling on my hand.

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3 thoughts on “A Moment for Millipedes

  1. Love having the information about millipedes. When my thirdborn lived in Florida, she and my granddaughter frequently found millipedes in their (clean, neat, new) house–and picked them up to move them outside. I should have known they knew they would not bite. Also love hearing about my alma mater’s work on this animal’s glow under blacklight characteristic. Your photos delight me; they bring me right up close and personal with your experience.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Looking Under Logs | Birch Nature

  3. Pingback: A Walk in the Ellett Valley Recreational Area | Birch Nature

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