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* * *   MILLIPEDES, CENTIPEDES & PILL BUGS   * * *

Scolopendromorpha, Scolopendra viridis, a centipede

centipede, millipede & sowbugFirst of all, to get a general idea of the differences between centipedes, millipedes and pill bugs, take a look at the drawing at the right. All three animal types are arthropods -- creatures with, among other things, segmented bodies and jointed legs.

HOW THEY'RE RELATED TO OTHER THINGS

We would say that the arthropod phylum is divided into several subphyla and classes (see our page on classification). Here are some of those subdivisions:

  • SUBPHYLUM CHELICERATA
    • The arachnids (Class Arachnida -- spiders, scorpions, mites, ticks, etc.)
  • SUBPHYLUM UNIRAMIA
    • The insects (Class Insecta -- beetles, grasshoppers... you know... )
    • The centipedes (Class Chilopoda)
    • The millipedes (Class Diplopoda)
  • SUBPHYLUM CRUSTACEAE (Crustaceans)
    • Class Malacostraca (crabs, shrimp, water fleas, pill bugs, etc.).

Sometimes centipedes and millipedes are lumped together as myriapods.

In the above list you can see that pill bugs are actually closer related to shrimp and crabs than to centipedes and millipedes, and that centipedes and millipedes, despite looking so similar superficially, are actually not too closely related.

PILL BUGS

Pill Bugs, Armadillidium vulgarePill Bugs such as the ones shown at the left, take their name from the habit of rolling into a ball when bothered, protecting their soft underside. The pill bug at the far left is half rolled into such a ball. Pill bugs are about 0.6 inch long (1.4cm). Most crustaceans, such as lobsters and crabs, live in or near water, so pill bugs are unusual dry-land crustaceans. However, they still require moist habitats because their delicate gill-like breathing organs must be kept moist. Pill bugs are found under logs, stones, and in damp basements, and they feed mostly on decaying vegetation, so obviously they are not going to bite you. Pill bugs are often called sow bugs, but specialists like to reserve the name sow bug for some species that look a little like pill bugs, but can't roll into balls. Both pill bugs and sow bugs are sometimes known as woodlice.

CENTIPEDES & MILLIPEDES

You won't confuse pill bugs with centipedes or millipedes but, at least at first, you may have problems telling millipedes and centipedes apart. Here's how to distinguish them:

Differences between
Centipedes & Millipedes

Centipede body-segment possess one pair of legs (2 legs), while millipede body-segments are equipped with two pairs (4 legs). That makes the critter at the top of the page a centipede, right?

head of a Scolopendromorpha, Scolopendra viridisCentipedes are predators, mostly eating other arthropods, while millipedes eat plant material, especially soft, decomposing plant tissue. At the right you see the fangs of the above centipede, so you can imagine that Mother Nature hasn't equipped this critter with such   powerful-looking fangs so that it can munch soggy celery...

Centipedes, being predators, possess poison glands for incapacitating their prey (large ones can inflict painful though seldom dangerous bites).  In contrast, a typical millipede defense consists of secreting stinking juice from pores along its sides

centipede hanging from silk strand, photo by Karen Wise of Kingston, MississippiCentipedes are often called "hundred leggers," millipedes are called "thousand leggers," and pill bugs are sometimes called "sow bugs."  At the top of this page you see a centipede fairly common in the US Southeast. It's a Scolopendromorpha, Scolopendra viridis. You know that it's a centipede because each body segment has one pair of legs (two legs) while millipede body segments each have two pairs (four legs).  The Scolopendromorpha atop this page is about 3 inches long (7.5 cm), but they can grow larger. The larger ones can inflict a painful bite, and also can pinch with their last pair of legs. They dig burrows in which they rest, and females often coil around their eggs or young to protect them. The photo at the right shows something most people don't know about centipedes: Some centipede species can produce silk. Mainly they use silk only during mating and capturing prey. However, the fellow at the right didn't seem to be doing either of those things, so maybe we've discovered something here!

Polydesmida millipede, photo by Karen Wise of Kingston, MississippiThe picture at the left shows a millipede. If you look closely you'll see that each segment is equipped with four legs, making it a millipede. I'm not sure about the genus and species of that millipede but I'm pretty sure the one shown below is Pachydesmus crassicutis, common in the southeastern USA. Both of these species are members of the Polydesmida order. Polydesmid species all lack eyes, nearly all have stink glands, and most have 20 body segments. On males, the first pair of legs on the 7th ring are gonopods, which are copulatory organs -- used during sex.Pachydesmus crassicutis

The flatish, orangish millipede shown on our Arthropod Index Page is a member of the Platydesmida order, and is a species of the genus Brachycybe. In that order, in contrast to the above Polydesmida, the bodies have 30 to 192 rings (not 20) and the 9th and 10th pairs of legs are modified as gonopods (not the 7th).  Well, all this is being said just to show you that this business of centipedes, millipedes, and pill bugs is a whole new universe in itself...

MORE INFORMATION

Some interesting pages with centipede and millipede material can be found on the Web:

If you have a Yahoo! account you can also join the Millipede and Centipede Mailing List.

Though thousands of species of both centipedes and millipedes inhabit the earth there is no good, comprehensive, commonly available field guide for their identification. The Golden Nature Guide called Spiders and Their Kin illustrates about twenty of the most common species, so probably that's the backyard naturalist's best bet for beginners in North America.

You can review books about centipedes & millipedes available at Amazon.com in the US and the UK by clicking here.

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Conrad, Jim. Last updated . Page title: . Retrieved from The Backyard Nature Website at .