Cryptops hortensis, copyright Tom Murray.

Belongs within: Myriapoda.

The Scolopendromorpha are a group of often large centipedes bearing either 21 or 23 pairs of legs. Members of the family Scolopendridae bear four ocelli on either side of the head whereas species of Cryptopidae are eyeless. Scolopendridae are divided between Scolopendrinae, in which spiracles are triangular or slit-like and oriented parallel to the long axis of the body, and Otostigminae, in which spiracles are oval or subcircular and oriented perpendicular to the body axis. The genus Asanada has much shorter antennae than other Scolopendrinae, not reaching beyond the posterior margin of the first tergite (Koch 1983).

Giant centipedes (that aren’t all giants)
Published 23 July 2014
Scolopendra morsitans, copyright Jiri Lochman/Lochman Transparencies.

It was a dark night, but not stormy (nights tend to be dark, as a rule). We were out collecting for our regular survey when we encountered a large centipede (the same species as in the photo above) crossing the road, and decided to add it to our collection. Taking out the large 20-cm forceps that we had on hand for dealing with venomous animals, one of us used them to grab the centipede.

The response was electric. Rather than trying to escape its attacker, the centipede instantly whipped back and lashed itself around the forceps, doing its best to bite into them. Had the actual wielder of the forceps been within its reach, they would have been in for a world of pain. When dealing with scolopendrid centipedes, you should always remember three things: they are big, they are fast, and they are mean.

Scolopendridae are unmistakeable. They include the giants of the centipede world, with the largest species (the South American Scolopendra gigantea) reaching up to a foot in length. Even the smaller species are relatively robust compared to other centipedes. Like all centipedes, the first pair of legs is modified into a robust pair of ‘fangs’ used for delivering venom (when I referred above to a centipede ‘biting’, this is what I was properly referring to). Large scolopendrids have the most dangerous centipede stings, potentially causing intense pain, though fatalities are very rare (Bush et al., 2001, noted that no centipede fatalities were known from the US, though they did refer to a single known child fatality in the Philippines). Their hunting prowess is amply demonstrated in this video of a large scolopendrid hunting bats by quite literally snatching them out of the air:

But lest you think that scolopendrids are all venom and viciousness, let me point out that they also have their endearing qualities. Female scolopendrids make devoted mothers, coiling around their egg clutches and regularly cleaning them to prevent fungal attack. Even after the eggs hatch, the female continues to coddle and groom her young. Brunhuber (1970) recorded that females of Cormocephalus anceps spent at least three months (from late September to late December) caring for young before they struck out on their own. Even after becoming independent, the young do not reach sexual maturity until they are at least two years old. Other scolopendrids may mature more quickly, at about one year (Lewis 1972). Individual centipedes may live for several years.

Female Scolopendra morsitans cleaning her eggs, copyright H. J. B..

The Scolopendridae belong to a larger centipede group called the Scolopendromorpha. Most scolopendromorphs have bodies with 21 or 23 leg-bearing segments, except for one remarkable scolopendrid species from central Brazil that has 39 or 43 leg-bearing segments (Chagas-Junior et al. 2008). Non-scolopendrid species are often much smaller than the Scolopendridae, with some being only about 10 mm in length. These smaller scolopendromorphs also differ in eye morphology: Scolopendridae have a patch of four ocelli on either side of the head, but other scolopendromorphs are mostly blind and lack ocelli. In the past the blind scolopendromorphs have been treated as a single family Cryptopidae, but recent authors have mostly recognised three separate families Cryptopidae, Scolopocryptopidae and Plutoniumidae in light of uncertainty about the monophyly of a broader Cryptopidae. Nevertheless, a recent phylogenetic analysis by Vahtera et al. (2012) combining both morphological and molecular data did support a single blind clade. Unfortunately, no phylogenetic analysis to date has been able to include Mimops orientalis, an odd scolopendromorph known from a single specimen collected in China in 1903 and placed by Lewis (2006) in its own distinct family. Mimops possesses but a single ocellus on either side of the head, potentially making it very intriguing for the question of whether blindness has evolved in scolopendromorphs more than once.

The blind scolopendromorph Scolopocryptops sexspinosus, copyright Troy Bartlett.
Systematics of Scolopendromorpha
<==Scolopendromorpha [Scolopendrida]
| i. s.: Alipes grandidieriA99
| Mazoscolopendra richardsoni Mundel 1979RB93
|--Cryptopidae [Cryptopsidae]E06
| |--Plutonium zwierleiniiA99
| |--Otocryptops [Scolopocryptopinae]K54
| | |--O. ferrugineus (Linnaeus 1767) [=Scolopendra ferruginea]K54
| | `--O. melanostomusA27
| |--Newportia [Dinocryptopinae]K55
| | |--N. fuhrmanni Ribaut 1914K55
| | |--N. ignorata Kraus 1955K55
| | |--N. monticola Pocock 1890K55
| | |--N. simoni Brölemann 1898K55
| | `--N. stolli (Pocock 1896) [=Scolopendrides stolli]K54
| `--Cryptops Leach 1815E06
| | i. s.: C. anomalans Newport 1844BFM03
| | C. zelandicusM59
| |--*C. (Cryptops) hortensis (Donovan 1810) [=Scolopendra hortensis]E06
| `--C. (Trigonocryptops Verhoeff 1906)E06
| |--C. (*T.) gigas Kraepelin 1903E06
| |--C. (T.) camoowealensis Edgecombe 2006E06
| |--C. (T.) loveridgei Lawrence 1953 [incl. C. bokumensis Kraus 1958]E06
| |--C. (T.) roeplainsensis Edgecombe 2005E06
| |--C. (T.) spinipes Pocock 1891E06
| `--C. (T.) troglobius Matic et al. 1977E06
|--Otostigminae [Otostigmidae]K54
| |--RhysidaK54
| | |--R. nuda (Newport 1845) [=Branchiostoma nudum]K54
| | `--R. subinermisA27
| |--OtostigmusA27
| | |--O. astenusA27
| | |--O. loriaeA27
| | `--O. politum Karsch 1881A01
| `--EthmostigmusMC13
| |--E. cribriferA27
| |--E. curtipesMC13
| |--E. platycephalusA27
| `--E. rubripes (Brandt 1840)K83
|--Arthrorhabdus Pocock 1891K82
| `--A. paucispinusMC13
| |--C. aurantiipes (Newport 1844)F91
| |--C. hartmeyeri Kraepelin 1908F91
| |--C. michaelseni Kraepelin 1908K83
| |--C. rubricepsDGH93
| |--C. strigosus Kraepelin 1908T13
| `--C. turneriMC13
`--Scolopendra Linnaeus 1758L58
|--S. cingulataGR98
|--S. coleoptrata Linnaeus 1758L58
|--S. electrica Linnaeus 1758L58
|--S. forficata Linnaeus 1758L58
|--S. gigantea Linnaeus 1758L58
| |--S. g. giganteaK55
| `--S. g. weyrauchi Bücherl 1950K55
|--S. herosMH96
|--S. laeta Haase 1887 (see below for synonymy)K82
|--S. marina Linnaeus 1758L58
|--S. morsitans Linnaeus 1758 [incl. S. morsitans amazonica Buecherl 1946]K83
|--S. occidentalis Linnaeus 1758L58
|--S. phosphorea Linnaeus 1758L58
|--S. polymorphaRS10
|--S. proavita Menge 1854RB93
|--S. subspinipes Leach 1815 [incl. S. subspinipes var. mutilans Koch 1878]K92
|--S. viridicornisK55
`--S. viridis Say 1821K54

Scolopendra laeta Haase 1887 [=Rhombocephalus laetus; incl. S. laeta var. fasciata Kraepelin 1908, S. laeta var. flavipes Kraepelin 1908, S. laeta var. viridis Kraepelin 1908 non S. viridis Say 1821]K82

*Type species of generic name indicated


[A01] Attems, C. 1901. Myriopodák [Myriopoden]. In: Horváth, G. (ed.) Zichy Jenő Gróf Harmadik Ázsiai Utazása [Dritte Asiatische Forschungsreise des Grafen Eugen Zichy] vol. 2. Zichy Jenő Gróf Harmadik Ázsiai Utazásának Állattani Eredményei [Zoologische Ergebnisse der Dritten Asiatischen Forschungsreise des Grafen Eugen Zichy] pp. 275–310. Victor Hornyánszky: Budapest, and Karl W. Hierseman: Leipzig.

[A27] Attems, C. 1927. Myriopoden von Ambon und anderen Inseln der Banda-See. Zoologische Mededeelingen 10: 61–70.

[A99] Ax, P. 1999. Das System der Metazoa II. Ein Lehrbuch der phylogenetischen Systematik. Gustav Fisher Verlag: Stuttgart (translated: 2000. Multicellular Animals: The phylogenetic system of the Metazoa vol. 2. Springer).

[BFM03] Bonato, L., D. Foddai & A. Minelli. 2003. Evolutionary trends and patterns in centipede segment number based on a cladistic analysis of Mecistocephalidae (Chilopoda: Geophilomorpha). Systematic Entomology 28: 539–579.

Brunhuber, B. S. 1970. Egg laying, maternal care and development of young in the scolopendromorph centipede, Cormocephalus anceps anceps Porat. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 49 (3): 225–234.

Bush, S. P., B. O. King, R. L. Norris & S. A. Stockwell. 2001. Centipede envenomation. Wilderness and Environmental Medicine 12 (2): 93–99.

Chagas-Junior, A., G. D. Edgecombe & A. Minelli. 2008. Variability in trunk segmentation in the centipede order Scolopendromorpha: a remarkable new species of Scolopendropsis Brandt (Chilopoda: Scolopendridae) from Brazil. Zootaxa 1888: 36–46.

[DGH93] Daugherty, C. H., G. W. Gibbs & R. A. Hitchmough. 1993. Mega-island or micro-continent? New Zealand and its fauna. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 8 (12): 437–442.

[E06] Edgecombe, G. D. 2006. A troglobitic cryptopid centipede (Chilopoda: Scolopendromorpha) from western Queensland. Records of the Western Australian Museum 23 (2): 193–198.

[F91] Fain, A. 1991. Notes on mites parasitic or phoretic on Australian centipedes, spiders and scorpion. Records of the Western Australian Museum 15: 69–82.

[GEW01] Giribet, G., G. D. Edgecombe & W. C. Wheeler. 2001. Arthropod phylogeny based on eight molecular loci and morphology. Nature 413: 157–161.

[GR98] Giribet, G., & C. Ribera. 1998. The position of arthropods in the animal kingdom: a search for a reliable outgroup for internal arthropod phylogeny. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 9: 481–488.

[K82] Koch, L. E. 1982. Taxonomy of the centipede Scolopendra laeta Haase (Chilopoda: Scolopendridae) in Australia. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 76: 125–140.

[K83] Koch, L. E. 1983. Morphological characters of Australian scolopendrid centipedes, and the taxonomy and distribution of Scolopendra morsitans L. (Chilopoda: Scolopendridae: Scolopendrinae). Australian Journal of Zoology 31: 79–91.

[K54] Kraus, O. 1954. Myriapoden aus El Salvador. Senckenbergiana Biologica 35 (5–6): 293–349.

[K55] Kraus, O. 1955. Myriapoden aus Peru, III. Senckenbergiana Biologica 36 (3-4): 173–200.

Lewis, J. G. E. 1972. The life histories and distribution of the centipedes Rhysida nuda togoensis and Ethmostigmus trigonopodus (Scolopendromorpha: Scolopendridae) in Nigeria. Journal of Zoology 167 (4): 399–414.

Lewis, J. G. E. 2006. On the scolopendromorph centipede genus Mimops Kraepelin, 1903, with a description of a new family (Chilopoda: Scolopendromorpha). Journal of Natural History 40 (19-20): 1231–1239.

[L58] Linnaeus, C. 1758. Systema Naturae per Regna Tria Naturae, secundum classes, ordines, genera, species, cum characteribus, differentiis, synonymis, locis. Tomus I. Editio decima, reformata. Laurentii Salvii: Holmiae.

[MC13] Majer, J. D., S. K. Callan, K. Edwards, N. R. Gunawardene & C. K. Taylor. 2013. Baseline survey of the terrestrial invertebrate fauna of Barrow Island. Records of the Western Australian Museum Supplement 83: 13–112.

[MH96] Miller, S. A., & J. P. Harley. 1996. Zoology 3rd ed. Wm. C. Brown Publishers: Dubuque (Iowa).

[M59] Morgan, F. D. 1959. The ecology and external morphology of Stolotermes ruficeps Brauer (Isoptera: Hodotermitidae). Transactions of the Royal Society of New Zealand 86 (1): 155–195.

[RS10] Regier, J. C., J. W. Shultz, A. Zwick, A. Hussey, B. Ball, R. Wetzer, J. W. Martin & C. W. Cunningham. 2010. Arthropod relationships revealed by phylogenomic analysis of nuclear protein-coding sequences. Nature 463: 1079–1083.

[RB93] Ross, A. J., & D. E. G. Briggs. 1993. Arthropoda (Euthycarcinoidea and Myriapoda). In: Benton, M. J. (ed.) The Fossil Record 2 pp. 357–361. Chapman & Hall: London.

[T13] Taylor, C. K. 2013. Annotated bibliography for Barrow Island terrestrial invertebrates. Records of the Western Australian Museum Supplement 83: 135–144.

Vahtera, V., G. D. Edgecombe & G. Giribet. 2012. Evolution of blindness in scolopendromorph centipedes (Chilopoda: Scolopendromorpha): insight from an expanded sampling of molecular data. Cladistics 28: 4–20.

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