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Giant Peruvian Centipedes

Scolopendra Gigantea

Giant Peruvian Centipede
This is Mr. Cuddles. Don't be fooled by his cute appearance!

      Centipedes are growing in popularity among collectors of exotic pets. Giant centipedes are found naturally in tropical and sub-tropical areas of northern South America, Brazil, and Peru. There are about 2,800 species of centipedes, some that have not been classified yet. The Peruvian centipede is a member of the class Chilopoda, the phylum Arthropoda, the order Scolopendra, and probably the species Gigantea. The Peruvian centipede is the world's largest centipede. They are fast and aggressive, as with any Scolopendra centipede. Some of these larger centipedes make spectacular display animals. These spectacular pets can be used to evoke an array of reactions from friends and family. Giant centipedes are extremely venomous and bites from one might be compared it to a viper bite. They kill their prey with their poison jaws which contain venom. The bit is painful to humans and large animals because of this venom. The jaws have a poison gland located on the head that secretes a neurotoxin that allows its prey to remain alive and breathing, but paralyzed. Some people are more sensitive or allergic to this venom, so you should never handle a giant centipede! If a Giant Peruvian Centipede bites your hand, he will probably latch on with his fangs, then wrap around your arm. There is a possibility that your arm will permanently go numb after intense pain. Even common house centipedes have venom, so do not mess with them either.

Photo by Kristine Murawski.

      Centipedes breathe by taking in oxygen openings along the sides of their body called spiracles. They are located between the upper and lower chitinous shields and just behind the legs. The air travels through slender tubes called trachae. The trachae filters oxygen into the body by a process called diffusion. They lead into the larger tracheal chambers that branch off to supply the various parts of the body with oxygen. The heart is a chambered dorsal vessel. On the large Scolopendra, like the Peruvian Centipede, spiracles are located at segments 4,6,8,11,13,15,17,19, and 21. The openings are either round, triangular or s-shaped. Unlike insects, the spiracles in a centipede cannot be closed, therefore water loss in centipedes can happen quite quickly and dehydration will occur. Blood flows through a tube, which is located directly under the exoskeleton on its back. The centipede's nervous system consists of a relatively large brain connected with a ventral chain of ganglia, or two nerve cords, stretching the entire length of its body. The Scolopendra's eyes are simple, seeing only shadows of light, therefore smell and touch are very important.

      When a centipede eats, it cuts away at its prey. The food passes through the gizzard where it is ground into tiny bits. You might find luck by feeding your centipede live crickets and roaches. Caution, if you put 3 to 5 crickets in with the centipede at a time, it might be too much stress for the centipede. This can cause death. Most animals do not like their lunch crawling all over them. Mr. Cuddles likes defrosted mice or pinkies (he will not eat them live), uncooked shrimp, scallops, and other mollusks. Sometimes, a centipede will feast on anoles or goldfish. Truthfully, giant centipedes will eat almost anything.

The Skin Left After A Molt

      Unlike most animals, it is very difficult to distinguish the difference of the sexes even in adults. The male produces spermatophores that are introduced into the spermathacae of the female. The female fertilizes the eggs when they are deposited. The mother remains coiled around the eggs until they hatch. She does this to protect her eggs. Since sex determination is so difficult in Scolopendra, sometimes the only way to gain knowledge is by placing two together. If you get it wrong, the larger centipede will have an expensive dinner.

      It takes 4 years for some Giant centipedes to reach maturity. No one really knows how long Scolopendra gigantea can live up to yet, but one estimates about 10 years, small centipedes up to around 8 years. Mature Giant Peruvian centipedes range from 7 to 14 inches long (and I'm not going to measure how thick around he is).

Newly Molted       The centipede body is made of two divisions and 21 well-marked sections. The head and the trunk are the two divisions. The head is covered by a flat shield and bears a pair of antennae. A modified pair of legs, on the head, have strong joints which terminate in a sharp claw and is where the poison glands are located. Each section of the trunk has only on pair of legs, are usually seven-jointed and clawed. Both sections are encased in a chitinous exoskeleton. The centipedes must moult or shed their exoskeleton. Humidity plays an important role during this process. An excess of humidity, and the exoskeleton becomes too soft, not enough humidity and the exoskeleton is too hard to break out of. When it is time to moult, the centipede's body will appear distended. The legs will appear to be sinking into the body and the centipede will not be interisted in eating for a few weeks before molting. Between the first and second tergites, the back plates, separation occurs and the centipede extracts his way out through this opening. After this process the exoskeleton is very soft and flexible, do not disturb the animal at this time. The centipede is very vulnerable at this time. Many centipedes will consume their moult after moulting. If you see him molting, you can sometimes recover the molt, while it is damp, and press it in a book so you can later laminate it.

      A cage that will prevent your centipede from escaping is essential. They can be very good escape artists. A centipede will crawl up the side of the tank with just the last few legs on the ground so use an aquarium taller that your centipede is long. The tank should also be twice as long as the centipede, and at least as wide. Even large ones can pass their bodies through the smallest of openings. A snug fitting lid will prevent most centipedes from escaping. I would not recommend plastic shoe and sweater boxes because they do not have the security of a glass aquarium. I would sleep better at night knowing my centipede was locked away with maximum security.

Centipede in Water Dish
Photo by Kristine Murawski.

      Centipedes need a water dish as like most animals. Plastic soup containers and tops are suitable water dishes allowing the centipede to immerse in the water. If you use a deeper dish, add peat moss to the water so the prey will not drown as easily. Mist one side of the tank once ever other day to increase humidity. Screen top cages should be covered to keep in humidity and the aquarium should be 75 to 85 degrees fahrenheit. A plexiglass or a glass sheet will surfice.

      Vermiculite mixed with peat moss and sand will make for a suitable substrate. Orchid bark and vermiculite may be used. I use pebbles and peat moss. The centipede likes to crawl under the moss for fun, but it is not mandatory to keep anything in the aquarium for it to hide in. The pebbles may not be the best idea if you sleep with the centipede in your room. At night the centipede can be heard moving across the rocks. Mr. Cuddles likes to pick the rocks up in his mouth and place them in a corner. He also moves the moss to make a small cave near the corner of the tank. Provide shelter that the centipede can feel secure in or it will make its own. Your centipede will be much happier if you make him feel secure in his home.

      Mr. Cuddles was recently moved into a new home. After a great deal of coaxing, Mr. Cuddles was cornered into a soup container and carried over into a 40 gallon breeder aquarium. In his new home is about six inches of dirt and live plants. He enjoyed climbing over the plants for a few days then began digging a tunnel. After a few days of digging, he crawled into the tunnel and sealed off the opening. Since the dirt is losely packed around the top and I can see him through the glass I am not worried (but I did enjoy seeing him out). His tunnel is roomy enough to move the dirt out of the way when he desides to come out again. I know he'll emerge when he gets hungry and thirsty.

      Mr.Cuddles has been desiced for several years now. He is greatly missed. Before his death, I spoke about him with the curator of the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, PA. He was surprised to hear about the massive size of the Peruvian Centipede. I also learned how the museum stores to empty shells of the decised insects. Mr. Cuddles is now a harmless show peice.

Other Giant Centipede Links: Pet Sheet. Scolopendra Page -Great Pictures!
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Our Other Exotic Pets: Tarantulas -Basic Care Guide

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