Mozambique Diary: Alipes

A feather-legged centipede (Alipes sp.)
A strange chimera, the feather-legged centipede (Alipes sp.)

A couple of weeks ago I was ripping slabs of bark off an old fallen log, an activity that to me ranks among the most pleasurable things one can do, right up there with unwrapping Christmas presents. There is always a chance of finding something incredible – a beautiful cerambycid beetle, a colony of Pyramica, a ricinuleid. But then I pulled off a big chunk of bark and caught a glimpse of an animal that made me think that I am having a stroke. For a split of a second I saw what clearly appeared to be a large centipede, nothing unusual about it, only this one had two long feathers attached to the back of its body. Before I could get a really good look, it jumped off the log and disappeared in a tangle of branches on the forest floor. “I must be really dehydrated” was the only explanation I could come up with, and I made an active effort to forget about the whole thing.

But the strange chimera turned out to be very real. Last night, while rummaging around the camp at night, I found another one. The animal is indeed a centipede, a member of the mysterious genus Alipes (“feather leg”), closely related to scolopendras, and found only in parts of eastern Africa. Its last pair of legs is modified into large, feather-like paddles, the function of which is unclear. According to some sources the “feathers” can vibrate to produce a rustling sound, but I find it unlikely as they are quite soft and very flexible. This animal is also unusual among centipedes in possessing distinct longitudinal ridges on its tergites (most species have the dorsum smooth and shiny). Otherwise it behaves like a typical scolopendra, always trying to bite you and ripping to shreds any animal that it can sink its fangs (forcipules) into. And if anybody knows more about this amazing animal I would love to hear it.

A closeup of the "feathers". Their function in this centipede remains a mystery.
A closeup of the “feathers” of Alipes. Their function in this centipede remains a mystery.

19 Comments Add yours

  1. Nikolaj Scharff says:

    The sound produced by Alipes was documented by Skovgaard & Enghoff 1980: Stridulation in Alipes grandidieri (Lucas), a scolopendromorph centipede. Vidensk. Meddr. dansk naturh. Foren. 142: 151-160. Includes SEM images of the stridulating tsructures and recorded sound.I have a PDF of the paper, if of interest. Best wishes Nikolaj Scharff

  2. kellie brinley says:

    We had one of these feathered centipedes in clarksville indiana at our walmart that we work at … we were moving a pallet and it fell out of it and charged we were so scared not knowing what it was or if it was poisionous now we know

  3. Another great post about another fascinating creature! Ripping bark off a fallen log in Mozambique sounds like a dream come true! Many thanks to Peter Koomen—I just ordered myself a copy of The Biology of Centipedes…

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  5. hannele says:

    Very interesting! Thanks for sharing this information (it was new to me!) and your wonderful photos.

  6. Peter Koomen says:

    Read a book!
    Lewis, J.G.E., 1981. The Biology of Centipedes. Cambridge University Press: page 351:
    Alipus crotalus of South and East Africa has large leaflike terminal legs which it vibrates rapidly to produce a rustling or fluttering sound when disturbed (Lawrence, 1953). The East African Alipes grandidieri grandidieri (Lucas) runs around with its terminal legs directed backwards and held above the ground. When irritated the animal swings the anal legs from side to side and stridulates. The legs are sometimes autotomized: when this happens they continue to stridulate. The tibia and the tarsus are expanded into membranous plates on which a smaller area is particularly thin (Fig. 207). The thickened edge of the tibia is densely covered with fine transverse furrows which rub against longitudinal furrows on the thickened edge of the tarsus when the two are rubbed together by sagittal bends of the tibia-tarsus joint (I.B. Enghoff & H. Enghoff, 1976, unpublished report).

    1. Thanks for the info. As soon as the library in my Mozambican bush camp gets this book I am sure to read it, and when the Enghoffs’ unpublished report is turned into a book I will also order it immediately.

  7. John Pineda says:

    Any kind of bites from any specie of centipeds is poisonous.I was bitten by this twice ,i was about 7 or 8 yrs old and 50-50 ,if not taken at once to a doctor.The bite area,shown with 2 fang like a snakebite,and every minute of it,tingling pain,red and swollen.They were very luminous bright at night and make some crickets sound.I stepped on the first one bite and the 2nd bite,it crawled from the our house crevices,and moved to my neck.I slapped on it thought,it was an ant or insect crawling.

  8. Greg Pelka says:

    These’re stridulation organs. I’ve seen and heard mine ones to make reattlesnake-like sound when alerted.

  9. Mike Huben says:

    Might they be for swimming? It would be interesting to put one in a bucket of water.

    My personal hunch would be that they were for dispersing some pheromone or allomone. I don’t recommend that you sniff them on the intact animal. :-) Send them to Tom Eisner!

  10. Steen Dupont says:

    I thought those were stridulation organs. At least thats what i seem to remember Henrik Enghoff say about the Alipes I collected in Malawi. I may be very wrong.

  11. Gil Wizen says:

    I know this genus very well (I used to keep them as pets). Must be very impressive to find them in the wild. I cannot help but wondering whether they use the hind legs for luring of invertebrates (predacious beetles and spiders are the first ones to come in mind) or small lizards.

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