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Bug of the Month: Brown centipede

brown centipede viewed from aboveCommon name: Brown centipede

Latin name: Lithobius forficatus

Kingdom Animalia
   Phylum Arthropoda
      Class Chilopoda
         Order Lithobiomorpha
            Family Lithobiidae


Centipedes in general

underside of brown centipedeCentipedes are predators that are generally found in moist, dark places. They capture their prey with jaw-like claws that deliver venom. Common hide-outs are under stones and bark, and also in leaf litter and soil. Like insects, centipedes are arthropods with segmented body parts and jointed legs, but they are most often confused with another group of multi-legged arthropods, the millipedes. The easiest way to tell centipedes from millipedes is that centipedes have one pair of legs attached to each body segment, and long antennae, while millipedes have two pairs of legs per segment, and short antennae. Despite their name (centi = 100; ped = foot), centipedes may have anywhere from fifteen to over one hundred pairs of legs.

There are two orders of centipedes that are commonly seen on the Boston Harbor Islands. The long, skinny, flexible Geophilomorphs (soil millipedes), which have 30 or more pairs of legs, tend to dig deeper into the soil, while the shorter, stouter Lithobiomorphs (stone centipedes), which have just 15 pairs of legs as adults, dwell closer to the surface. There are about 2,800 named cenßtipede species in the world, but it is estimated that there are about 8,000 species total (most are “undescribed” and don’t have names yet).

side view of brown centipede, showing alternating long and short segments

How to identify the brown centipede

close up of teeth of a brown centipedeBrown centipedes are the most commonly seen large centipedes (18 to 30 mm as adults) with 15 pairs of legs on the Boston Harbor Islands. The most obvious way they differ from other similarly-sized species you might see is by the number of teeth on the underside of their head. They have 5-7 teeth on each side, while other species have fewer teeth. But you will probably never get a chance to examine this in the field!

Where to find brown centipedes on the Boston Harbor Islands

We have found brown centipedes on all of the islands we have sampled in Boston Harbor. They are primarily associated with forested habitats where they hide away in the leaf litter and under the bark of logs, but they may also be found under stones and rocks in more open areas.

How brown centipedes make a living

ocelli - simple eyes - allow the centipede to sense light, but they rely more on sensory hairsFemale centipedes lay single eggs over a period of days, and each egg is coated with mucus and soil which form a hardshell. The egg then sits in the soil or leaf litter until it hatches. The youngest centipede larvae have fewer than 15 segments, and with each molt they gain more segments. The sub-adults have 15 segments, but still go through about four more stages before they are sexually mature. Maturity is reached about two years after hatching, and the adults may live for another three years or more. Brown centipedes prey upon other invertebrates (e.g., sowbugs, spiders, mites, beetles, slugs) which they catch with their venomous jaw-like claws. They can run quickly with their powerful legs and rigid body. Centipedes are prey for small vertebrates like shrews and toads, and immature stages may be eaten by predatory beetles, spiders, and other centipedes.

Where in the world brown centipedes occur

Brown centipedes are native to Europe, the Mediterranean region, and north Africa. They have been introduced to North and South America.

To learn more about brown centipedes (and centipedes in general)

On the web:

In print:

    Eason, E.H. 1964. Centipedes of the British Isles. Frederick Warne and Co. Ltd., New York.

    Lewis, J.G.E., 1981. The biology of centipedes. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, U.K.