|Scutigera coleoptrata - the House Centipede|
To be accurate, “crawler” doesn’t do this little yellowish (up to 50mm or 2 inches) striped darling justice: handily for an insectivore, it can reach speeds of 0.4 meters (1.3 feet) per second across floors, up walls and over ceilings on its 15 pairs of surprisingly long legs; this is amazingly fast. They have cleverly developed long rear legs which mimic their antennae, making it difficult, at rest, to tell which end is which. Gaining access to our houses mainly via drains, they live a mainly nocturnal life for up to seven years killing (by envenomation through modified legs - they have legs to spare, after all) and eating a range of household pests including ants, spiders, cockroaches, termites and silverfish. Though capable of stinging humans (Max notes that, since the venom comes from its legs, it cannot correctly be called a bite) such stings are vanishingly rare and associated with minor pain and swelling which disappears in a few hours, except for the very unlucky (and very few) who are allergic to the venom. Their hunting technique is sophisticated and they are well equipped to deal with their prey: they have efficient, faceted eyes, their antennae detect smells and touch, they use their jaws and legs for holding several small prey at a time and can jump onto, or use their long legs to lasso, their prey. They are easily squashed if you can catch them, but please don’t: they even cuddle their babies.
In ancient Egypt, since centipedes prey on the small animals associated with decomposition of the body after death, they were seen as protectors of the dead (though since they were always present at the scene, Max has to wonder….) and were revered as an aspect of Osiris, Lord of the Dead, known in this aspect as Sepa (or Sep), which means, well, centipede, and depicted as a bicornate mummy (parent who purchases ice cream?) or (imaginatively) as a centipede or (did they do a lot of drugs in Heliopolis?) as a donkey-headed man. Tenuously, since centipedes are venomous, Sepa was invoked to protect against snake and scorpion envenomation. Also, because they are found in soil, centipedes (and therefore Sepa) are associated with soil fertility, which in turn is connected to donkey dung (now do you see?).
Centipedes also feature in Japanese mythology, for example:
In the mountains near Lake Biwa, lived the Centipede, a monstrous, outsized creature that preyed upon the people who lived there. The Dragon King of Lake Biwa called upon Hidesato, a legendary hero in Japanese myth, to slay the Centipede. Hidesato killed the creature using an arrow coated with his own saliva, fired into the Centipede's brain. For this mighty feat, the Dragon King rewarded him with a ricebag that would never run empty.
Apparently Hidesato was myopic and thought his Centipede Conquering Manual said “dip the arrow in SPIT”. It is also clear that Dragon Kings are a bit uncreative on the reward front; they need to think outside the bag.
So I was armed with a superior foreknowledge and prepared for the most undemanding of encounters, anticipating the quick capture and removal of our little friend with a bold laugh and a merry quip. When I reached the boudoir, with its scent of powder and L’Air du Temps, I started a systematic grid-search of the room, giving no quarter to Louis Vuitton or his hatboxes, but found no Scutigera. In disappointment and, indeed, anti-climax, I sat on the four-poster among the day's piles of rejected wardrobe items. Just then, I saw a movement in my peripheral vision, at where the wainscot would be if I didn’t (preposterously) insist on living in a fourteenth century watchtower. Closer, but not too much closer, inspection revealed the naïvete, the baseless optimism, the triumph of hope over fact, of my presumptive identification of the perpetrator of our noble guest’s displeasure. There in the angle formed by the junction of the stone wall with the tiled floor was the BIG cousin of our faithful and familiar friend; we are talking the Megarian Banded Centipede, Scolopendra cingulata.
|Scolopendra cingulata |
the Megarian Banded Centipede
Found throughout southern Europe in mountainous regions of the Mediterranean, it grows up to 15cm (6 inches) long, is fast and aggressive, and mainly nocturnal. An adult Scolopendra will eat almost any creature smaller than itself (e.g. spiders, beetles, crickets, woodlice) and sometimes those larger than itself (e.g. small lizards). With a lifespan of up to seven years, this centipede is known to sting humans (and even policemen) using its specialised claws (maxillipedes) when trapped or injudiciously touched up. Rather unreassuringly, J.G.E. Lewis, in his book The Biology of Centipedes (he should get out more), writes that the haemolytic (causing red blood cell breakdown) action of the venom is comparable to that of cobra venom (Lévy, 1923). That said, the sting is painful and causes redness and swelling reported to be comparable to a bee sting. Only those (rarae aves) who are allergic to the venom may be in any danger - they should seek immediate medical attention. For the non-allergic, MedlinePlus suggests washing the affected area with soap and water, then repeatedly applying an ice pack 10 minutes on, 10 minutes off. They should then seek immediate social limelight.
Pliny the Elder claimed that a certain remedy for Scolopendra bite is to touch the top of the victim’s head with a drop of his own urine: “when his wound is at once healed”. Max supposes that, given the laughter such a suggestion may provoke, urine would not be in short supply.
The genus Scolopendra includes many (all much larger) centipedes with very venomous stings which may contain acetylcholine, histamine, serotonin (5-hydroxytryptamine), hemolytic phospholipase A and a cardiotoxic protein. They sometimes turn up in unexpected places:
Giant centipede found in the UK
An example of the world's largest species of centipede has been been found crawling up a living room wall in Islington. The giant centipede, Scolopendra gigantea, is a highly venomous centipede native to Central and South America. The specimen found is over 23cm long and 2cm wide (without legs). Its discovery in the UK is very unusual and in fact this is the first live specimen of this species that the Museum has ever been asked to identify.
Hmmm. Islington. Isn’t that where Tony Blair used to live? Has anyone seen him recently…….?
Accidental envenomation of those perverse enough to keep centipedes as pets is relatively common and needless to say, given examples quoted in other posts in the DaysinArcadia blog, hapless centipedes are sometimes employed as offensive weapons. The Sun newspaper (Oh, Worthy Organ!) reported in October 2008 as follows:
War of the Worms erupts
A row between feuding neighbours opened a whole can of worms. The men in Malaysia had such an angry exchange, one unleashed centipedes in his opponent's bed, reports say. And now a court has charged the man over the alleged creepy crawly offence. The 21-year-old defendant, named in reports as R Prabakaran, pleaded not guilty in the court in Johor Baru city. He was charged with attempting to cause harm with a dangerous weapon in the bed of his neighbour, K Rajama, 30, last Friday. It was not clear what species the centipedes were. Some can be poisonous. If found guilty, Prabakaran faces up to three years prison and a caning.
(The caning is not absolutely necessary, (or guaranteed, for DaysinArcadia’s more recherché readers) but fulfills certain personal needs of some Malaysian officials and apparently memorably teaches the perpetrator that naughtiness gives you a very sore bottom).
Readers will doubtless be glad to hear that Max survived his encounter with the Megarian Banded Centipede unscathed, but was slightly hurt by a thoughtless remark made about the cut of his suit.
“Some men come by the name of genius in the same way as an insect comes by the name of centipede - not because it has a hundred feet, but because most people can't count above fourteen”.
[Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (German physicist 1742 - 1799)].