As I prowled the remote mixed-grass prairie of northwestern Oklahoma in the middle of the night, an enormous, serpentine figure emerged frenetically from a clump of grass and clambered up the banks of the draw I was exploring. Although I was still hoping for my first glimpse of the Great Plains giant tiger beetle, I was keeping a watchful eye out for anything that moved within the illuminated tunnel of my headlamp due to the potential for encountering prairie rattlesnakes (perhaps the most aggressive of North America’s species). This was clearly no snake, but at up to 8″, Scolopendra heros (giant desert centipede) easily matches some smaller snakes in length. Also called the giant Sonoran centipede and the giant North American centipede, it is North America’s largest representative of this class of arthropods (although consider its South American relative, S. gigantea – the Peruvian or Amazonian giant centipede, whose lengths of up to 12″ make it the largest centipede in the world).
Although I had never before seen this species alive, I recognized it instantly for what it was. Many years ago I was scouting the extreme southwest corner of Missouri for stands of soapberry (Sapindus saponaria), a small tree that just sneaks inside Missouri at the northeasternmost limit of its distribution, in hopes of finding dead branches that might be infested with jewel beetles normally found in Texas. I had heard that these centipedes also reach their northeastern extent in southwestern Missouri, and just a few miles from the Arkansas and Oklahoma borders I found a road-killed specimen. I stood there dejected looking at it – too flattened to even try to salvage for the record.
Centipedes, of course, comprise the class Chilopoda, which is divided into four orders. The giant centipedes (21 species native to North America) are placed in the order Scolopendromorpha, distinguished by having 21 or 23 pairs of legs and (usually) four small, individual ocelli on each side of the head (best seen in bottom photo). The three other orders of centipedes either lack eyes (Geophilomorpha) or possess compound eyes (Scutigeromorpha and Lithobiomorpha). These latter two orders also have only 15 pairs of legs (shouldn’t they thus be called “quindecipedes”?). Among the scolopendromorphs, S. heros is easily distinguished by its very large size and distinctive coloration. This coloration varies greatly across its range, resulting in the designation of three (likely taxonomically meaningless) subspecies. This individual would be considered S. h. castaneiceps (red-headed centipede) due to its black trunk with the head and first few trunk segments red and the legs yellow. As we have noted before, such striking coloration of black and yellow or red nearly always indicates an aposematic or warning function for a species possessing effective antipredatory capabilities – in this case a toxic and very painful bite.
The individual in these photographs is not the first one I saw that night, but the second. I had no container on hand to hold the first one and not even any forceps with which to handle it – I had to watch in frustration as it clambered up the side of the draw and disappear into the darkness of the night. Only after I returned to the truck to retrieve a small, plastic terrarium (to fill with dirt for the giant tiger beetles that I now possessed) did I luck into seeing a second individual, which I coaxed carefully into the container. It almost escaped me yet again – I left the container on the kitchen table when I returned home, only to find the container knocked onto the floor the next morning and the lid askew. I figured the centipede was long gone and hoped that whichever of our three cats that knocked the container off the table didn’t experience its painful bite. That evening, I noticed all three cats sitting in a semi-circle, staring at a paper shredder kept up against the wall in the kitchen. I knew immediately what had so captured their interest and peeked behind the shredder to see the centipede pressed up against the wall. The centipede had lost one of its terminal legs but seemed otherwise none the worse for wear – its terrarium now sits safely in my cat-free office, and every few days it enjoys a nice, fat Manduca larva for lunch.
There are a number of online “fact sheets” on this species, mostly regarding care in captivity for this uncommon but desirable species. I highly recommend this one by Jeffrey K. Barnes of the University of Arkansas for its comprehensiveness and science-focus.
Photo Details: Canon 50D (ISO 100, 1/250 sec) w/ Canon MT-24EX flash in white box.
Photos 1-2: Canon 100mm macro lens (f22), indirect flash.
Photo 3: Canon MP-E 65mm 1-5X macro lens (f/13), direct flash w/ Sto-Fen + GFPuffer diffusers.
Post-processing: levels, minor cropping, unsharp mask.
Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2010