The Owls of the Bug World

House centipede, Muséum de Toulouse (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Now that it’s spring and we’re at home all the time we see indoor wildlife, especially at night. Don’t be afraid when you turn on the light and encounter this startling arthropod. The house centipede is hunting down your enemies.

House centipedes (Scutigera coleoptrata) are nocturnal raptors, the owls of the bug world.  They eat a wide variety of live prey including spiders, flies, moths, silverfish, ants, termites, roaches and bedbugs which they catch by running them down.

With so many of our enemies on the menu, you’d think we’d be grateful to have them in the house. Unfortunately house centipedes look creepy, move way too fast, and then pause long enough for us to smash them … or for a cat to touch one as Jlauboro‘s cat did in 2009.

Cat watches a house centipede, May 2009 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
House cat reaches for a house centipede, May 2009 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

However, they have some fascinating qualities. Here are just a few as described on Kelly Brenner’s blog and at Animal Diversity Web.

  • House centipedes (Scutigera coleoptrata) have only 30 legs, arranged in 15 pairs.
  • They’re the world’s fastest arthropod at 16 inches/second.
  • The first pair of legs are mouthparts that deliver poison to kill their prey.
  • Centipedes groom themselves after they eat, cleaning each leg in turn.
  • They’re nocturnal and prefer damp places because they don’t have wax on their exoskeltons and would otherwise dry out. That’s why you sometimes find one in the sink.
  • House centipedes have sex somewhat remotely. When a male finds a receptive female he spins a silk pouch on which he deposits his sperm. She picks up the pouch and fertilizes her eggs.
  • The females are active mothers, protecting their eggs and staying with their young for about two weeks after hatching.
  • Young centipedes are tiny (and kind of cute). Born with only 8 legs, they gain new legs when they grow new segments at each instar.

House centipedes can live their entire lives indoors, providing us with watchable wildlife if we can bear to look at them.

House centipede at eye level (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Learn more about house centipedes at On Being Misunderstood.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

9 thoughts on “The Owls of the Bug World

  1. And all this time I thought the spiders were eating the centipedes in my basement! Now that I know they kill flies and ants I won’t be as quick to smoosh them.

  2. Great info! I’ve often wondered about these creepy guys. I am announcing a non-aggression pact–if they stay in the basement, I won’t squish them. However, you should have mentioned that their bite is a bit poisonous; not really dangerous, but you should not handle them. They could bite it they think they are cornered.

  3. I catch centipedes using a 2 inch dixie cup. I place it open side down over the little critter and it crawls up into it. Then I have a lid that I hurriedly place over the top. I dispose of it outside and it runs into the grass. I can’t bear to smash them, but I do leave them alone in the garage.

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