Our top predator

House centipedes (Scutigera coleoptrata) are born with only 4 pairs of legs, but eventually develop 15 pairs [Canon 7D, Canon 100mm macro, 3 x 580EXII]

As the days grow shorter and colder, I find myself paying more and more attention to the organisms that I took for granted throughout the entire summer. Suddenly, cricket songs punctuate the unexpectedly chilly nights with hesitation, moths coming to the light on our deck are getting smaller and rarer, and spindly centipedes trapped in the kitchen sink in the morning remind me that I should count my arthropod blessings before winter takes most of them away.

The house centipede (Scutigera coleoptrata) is a particularly welcomed inhabitant of my domestic ecosystem. I have always been fascinated by these animals, and one of my life’s greatest achievements was the ability to convince my wife, who would rather be in the same room with a wild grizzly than a 3 mm long spider, to tolerate and (almost) appreciate their presence. On a few occasions a large centipede ran across the carpet in the living room while we watched TV, and Kristin didn’t bat an eye. (Perhaps 8 legs is that magical number that triggers irrational fear in some people – fewer than or more than 4 pairs is simply not perceived as threatening or creepy, at least not as much.)

House centipede with a cockroach prey; notice the large fangs (forcipules), which deliver the venom that kills the victim, and a prehensile foot holding the cockroach’s leg. [Canon 7D, Canon 100mm macro, 3 x 580EXII]

House centipedes came to North America from the warm, Mediterranean region of Europe, where they can be found in caves and other shady, humid environments. In New England and other places with harsh winters they prefer to spend at least part of the year in houses, and live outside only during warmer summer months. This is why people generally start noticing them in the spring, when these animals look for ways to get out of the house, and then again in the fall, when they come back to spend the winter in the safety of our basements. Their presence in people’s homes is a reminder of the fact that houses are, in an essence, caves inhabited by large mammals. These mammals provide a constant stream of organic debris, which in turn supports a rich fauna of prey species for the centipedes: mites, silverfish, flies, and cockroaches, to name a few of our troglophiles.

Centipedes are the top predators of our domestic ecosystems. They are the equivalent of cheetahs in the African savanna – lean and long-legged chasers of those who scavenge our organic refuse, catching their prey and immediately killing it with one powerful bite. But their weaponry is even more sophisticated than that of the cats. Since the nervous system of insects is not as centralized as that of mammals, crushing the head of the prey would not necessarily kill it. A far more effective method is to inject the prey with venom, which instantly paralyzes it and stops it from struggling. Centipedes do so with a pair of modified legs, shaped like a pair of fangs and connected to venom glands. (Be not afraid, however – these are not capable of piercing our skin, in the unlikely event that you caught one of these things and forced it to bite you; centipedes have absolutely not interest, or capacity, to attack people.)
They also have something else that cheetahs lack – prehensile legs that can wrap around the appendages of their prey, in a way remarkably similar to that in which an octopus handles its victims. Having 15 pairs of long, grasping legs allows centipedes to carry their prey, and even hold one while hunting for another.

If you have seen these animals around your house, count yourself lucky. Their presence assures that no pest species will be able to multiply unchecked, and spread harmful germs from your trash and pipes into the rest of the house. Centipedes may not be the cuddliest of your roommates, but they pay their rent and keep the house clean.

House centipede with a cockroach prey [Canon 7D, Canon 100mm macro, 3 x 580EXII]

9 thoughts on “Our top predator

  1. I live in an older apartment (circa 1900). I’d never seen a silverfish till I moved here. One night a tannish white creature stopped on my sink on enough fo rme to check it out. Googling I eventually identifid it as a house centipede. It sorta looked like a centipede – similar to the ones I’d seen outdoors, but this creature had really long legs. I don’t kill critters in my apartment – centipedes, silverfish or spiders. Ok if I ever see a bedbug, Heaven forbid, I’d definitely try to kill it. Hopefully the house centipedes will keep them at bay.

    Thanks for the info a centipedes – a top predator in my apartment.

    • I am seriously scouring Google, trying to find a site that I can buy a hundred or so from! But to no avail. Moved into an apt that has a serious roach problem, and as creeped out as I was from these house centipedes, learning that they are harmless to humans, and that they eat the bugs that feast on humans or our food, has made me grow a fond appreciation of these bugs. I’ve only come across them maybe twice in my life, and, right now, I wish they’d be my roommate, kicking the other ones out. I’d rather see this creepy bug, knowing they’re helping me, than the other creepy bugs.

  2. great post with brilliant pictures and useful information! i really liked

    “Their presence in people’s homes is a reminder of the fact that houses are, in an essence, caves inhabited by large mammals.” To be able to see the world from others’ point of view is a rare gift (unfortunately), which is so important to really be able to understand biology. Thanks, that was a treat to read.

  3. I always thought these to be the nastiest things in the house!!! I might let them live now, even though they might still gross me out!

  4. I never walk around without shoes in the basement anymore, and keep a large can of RAID on the stairs that I can collect on my way down. They may help keep other pest populations in order, and they may not be harmful to humans (I’m told a bite is comparable to one of a bee), but they are ugly as sin.

    They’re nocturnal, so if I happen to see one during the day, I don’t feel the slightest bit sorry when I send a voluminous and potent cloud of bug death spray for it to bask in. Perhaps it should have followed the centipede bylaws (curfew) like the rest of it’s hideous (but still alive) relatives.

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