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What Is a Millipede?

By Lumara Lee
Updated May 17, 2024
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A millipede is an invertebrate arthropod that has a segmented body. Most of its segments have four legs, and the number of segments varies. Members of the diplopoda class, there are many varieties which range from .08 inch (0.2 cm) in length to almost 12 inches (30 cm) long. The majority of millipedes are 1.5 inches (3.8 cm) long. Coloration is mostly brown or black, with some sporting brighter shades of oranges and reds.

The millipede body generally is more rounded than that of a centipede, which only has two legs per segment. Millipedes move slowly and cannot bite or sting, but their hard shells offer some protection. In addition, they curl up when threatened, offering an armored surface to predators. The millipede has many predators, including birds, lizards, frogs, turtles, and small mammals.

Most millipedes have poor eyesight, and some are blind. These invertebrates eat decaying vegetation and live in damp locations under rotting logs, piles of leaves, and rocks. They reproduce via sexual reproduction, and the females lay clutches of 500 to 1,000 eggs.

Hatchlings molt as they grow, developing additional legs and segments each time they shed their skins. Although the word millipede means 1,000 legs, no millipedes have that many appendages. Most babies hatch with three pairs of legs, and the majority of the 10,000 species of millipedes have anywhere from 80 to 400 legs.

Millipedes are mostly nocturnal. They use their many legs to tunnel through the soil. The average millipede has a very short life span, but some specimens have been known to live for 10 years or more. Several species can excrete a foul-smelling liquid in defense when disturbed.

Some common types of millipede are pill, spotter, duff, bristly, and flat-backed. Pill millipedes are shiny, black bugs that average 18 pairs of legs and are around .79 inch (2 cm) long. Spotter millipedes are yellow with red spots and are garden pests that can damage bulbs and potatoes.

Duff millipedes are tiny bugs that are attracted to pine bark. They often enter homes that have damp environments. Bristly millipedes are brown and get their name from the coarse hair covering their bodies. Flat-backed millipedes don’t have rounded bodies like the others in its class and can be brown or white.

The African black giant is the largest millipede in the world. Native to Africa, the black giant reaches a length between 7.5 inches (19 cm) and 11 inches (28 cm) at maturity. Its docile nature makes it a popular pet with those who favor arthropods.

Frequently Asked Questions

What distinguishes a millipede from a centipede?

Millipedes and centipedes are often confused due to their numerous legs, but they differ significantly. Millipedes have two pairs of legs per body segment, a rounded body, and are detritivores, meaning they feed on decaying plant matter. Centipedes, on the other hand, have one pair of legs per segment, a flatter body, and are carnivorous, preying on insects and other small creatures.

How many legs does a millipede actually have?

Despite their name, millipedes do not have a thousand legs. The number of legs varies from species to species, but most millipedes have between 30 and 400 legs. The Illacme plenipes species holds the record for the most legs, with individuals having up to 750 legs, according to entomological studies.

What is the lifespan of a millipede?

Millipedes can have surprisingly long lifespans for invertebrates. On average, they live between 7 to 10 years, depending on the species and environmental conditions. This longevity is partly due to their slow metabolism and the protection offered by their hard exoskeletons against predators and the elements.

Are millipedes poisonous or dangerous to humans?

Millipedes are generally not dangerous to humans. They do possess defensive mechanisms, such as secreting a liquid that can be irritating to the skin or eyes of potential predators. However, this secretion is not poisonous and typically poses no serious threat to humans. It's advisable to wash hands after handling millipedes as a precaution.

What role do millipedes play in the ecosystem?

Millipedes are crucial decomposers in many ecosystems. By feeding on decaying leaves and plant matter, they break down and recycle nutrients back into the soil, promoting soil health and fertility. This process supports plant growth and maintains the balance of microorganisms within the soil ecosystem.

How do millipedes reproduce?

Millipedes reproduce through a process called sexual reproduction. Males deposit sperm packets which are picked up by females. Females then lay eggs in nests made from soil and decaying organic matter. The eggs hatch into young millipedes, which undergo several molts, shedding their exoskeletons as they grow, before reaching adulthood.

WiseGEEK is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

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