photos by cottonmanifesto
Urban species #079: Garden centipede Lithobius forficatus
To my knowledge, there is no word analogous to "arachnophobia" to indicate a fear of centipedes. Yet many people I know are made much more uncomfortable by centipedes than by spiders. Something about they way they move, they way they combine scuttling with slithering, something about them inspires revulsion in many many people. Most centipedes are, of course, totally harmless to humans. There are a few large tropical species whose venom can ruin your day, or in one case end your life, but since not many people are inclined to handle them, biting incidents are rare.
Like spiders, all centipedes are predators, and they use their venom-filled jaws (actually a pair of legs adapted for the purpose, called "forcipules") to paralyze or kill their prey. The forcipules (I just learned the word, and now I've used it twice!) of Lithobius centipedes are too small and weak to penetrate human skin. Garden centipedes are most often encountered by children (and the young at heart) turning over logs and rocks. The orangeish-brown centipedes scurry madly from the light in all directions. They can't see well, and prefer to do their hunting in the dark, feeling about with their antennae and avoiding becoming prey themselves. As far as birds, salamanders, and shrews are concerned, garden centipedes aren't creepy, they're delicious. Lithobius centipedes feed on insects and spiders, and should be considered welcome guests in the garden.
Lithobius forficatus is the most common centipede in Europe and North America, and the order Lithobiomorpha, to which they belong includes more than a third of all known centipede species. In case you're wondering, and haven't counted yet, Lithobius forficatus has 30 legs. No centipede has 100 legs, despite the name.
Any place in the city that has enough soil, moisture, cover, and prey animals is likely to have Lithobius. Rotten logs are favorite hiding places, probably because of the fungus-feeding insects and isopods that are attracted to them. Most houses are probably too dry to be popular habitat for garden centipedes. Houses are better habitat for Scutigera centipedes. While some species of centipedes are well described, there is still a lot to be learned about them, even the urban species. In fact, in 2003 in New York City, an entirely new species of centipede was discovered.