A suit of armour and 300 legs

Animal Magic at Tilgate Nature Centre - Millipede (Pic by Jon Rigby) SUS-150202-122203001
Animal Magic at Tilgate Nature Centre - Millipede (Pic by Jon Rigby) SUS-150202-122203001

Welcome to Animal Magic – a series of fortnightly columns where we take an in-depth look at some of Tilgate Nature Centre’s popular, and less well-known animal residents.

This week we take a look at a member of the Millipede family - Giant African millipedes.

Giant African millipedes are really quite marvellous! They have lots of clever methods of protecting themselves. These creepy crawlies, or invertebrates to give them their proper name, do not have a backbone. In fact, they don’t have any bones on the inside at all. Instead, they wear an outer skeleton called an exoskeleton – it’s a bit like a suit of armour! This exoskeleton helps to protect the millipede from predators. If they are feeling threatened they will curl up with the exoskeleton protecting their legs and head. When they curl up like this it looks a bit like a pile of poo – perfect for deterring predators!

Now, if that isn’t enough to stop a predator the millipede has something else up its sleeve. From its backside it can squirt out a dark brown iodine-like substance. This substance doesn’t hurt humans, but it does stain your skin for a few days and it doesn’t taste very nice at all! Now, some very cheeky monkeys have started using this substance to their advantage. Capuchin monkeys and lemurs have been seen rolling and biting millipedes so that they release this substance. The monkeys then rub it all over their bodies because it acts as a natural insect repellent! They also suck this substance from the millipedes because it is a natural narcotic!

Of course, we couldn’t talk about millipedes without mentioning those amazing legs! The word ‘millipede’ means ‘a thousand feet’ but whoever first discovered millipedes was a bit lazy and obviously didn’t count them because they don’t have a thousand feet; they have about 300. These pins move in a wave-like motion when the millipede walks. They can walk forwards and backwards and they can move each leg individually if they wish. If you look closely you’ll see that millipedes have two four legs on each segment of their body. As well as millipedes, you’ve probably heard of centipedes who only have two legs on each segment. Don’t get your millipedes and centipedes mixed up! Millipedes are harmless herbivores but centipedes are venomous carnivores who can give you a very nasty bite!

Our new Giant African millipedes will be on display in our Discovery Room soon, so come down and take a look at these beautiful leggy creepy crawlies!