The weirdest centipede ever

May 20, 2013 • 5:26 am

This is one of those times when scientists discover a structure whose function is absolutely mysterious.  Piotr (Peter) Naskrecki, an entomologist, photographer and author working the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard, is currently in Mozambique, documenting his adventures at a website called The Smaller Majority. Piotr is one of the best animal photographers ever, and his Mozambique entries are not disappointing. His latest entry, “Mozambique Diary: Alipes“, recounts his finding a bizarre centipede, pictured below. It’s so new, in fact, that I don’t think it yet has a species name: it’s simply called Alipes (the genus) “sp.” (species).

Have a look at this baby, and realize that those appendages are not in the front, but are the modified rear legs of this arthropod.  And their function is completely unknown. (Photos reproduced by permission.)


Piotr saw one of these under tree bark earlier, but it disappeared before he could get a shot. Then, one night, he found one in camp. As he describes:

Last night, while rummaging around the camp at night, I found another one. The animal is indeed a centipede, a member of the mysterious genus Alipes (“feather leg”), closely related to scolopendras, and found only in parts of eastern Africa. Its last pair of legs is modified into large, feather-like paddles, the function of which is unclear. According to some sources the “feathers” can vibrate to produce a rustling sound, but I find it unlikely as they are quite soft and very flexible. This animal is also unusual among centipedes in possessing distinct longitudinal ridges on its tergites (most species have the dorsum smooth and shiny). Otherwise it behaves like a typical scolopendra, always trying to bite you and ripping to shreds any animal that it can sink its fangs (forcipules) into. And if anybody knows more about this amazing animal I would love to hear it.

Here’s a close-up of the forceps.  If any reader wants to hazard a guess about what they do, be my guest.

Oh, and be sure to see Piotr’s post on the Mozambique golden bat.


‘h/t: Alex Wild tweet via Matthew Cobb

55 thoughts on “The weirdest centipede ever

  1. Cool! Reminded me of the evasion strategy of the butterflies posted recently; that is, the rear end looking more like a front end so that the animal can better escape predation.

  2. Perhaps the first thing to come to mind would be sexual selection. Is this exaggerated morphology found on males only, or in both sexes?

    Alternatively, it could be a predator avoidance/confusion tactic. Much like various striped patterns on snakes make them more difficult to target when moving, these may distract predators and cause them to miss a fleeing centipede. Or, they could contribute to an aposematic signal, i.e. warning to predators that this individual possesses distasteful toxins.

    All of this is just speculation, though. Would like to learn more about this species!

  3. Beautiful animal with what will probably prove to be some amazing evolutionary adaptation, but man-oh-man do centipedes creep me right the hell out. Not sure what it is, but seeing these guys gives me the heebee jeebees like no other animal does.

    1. Me too. I’m fine with spiders, but centipedes…. ugh!

      I note that in the Ian Fleming’s book Doctor No, someone put a giant centipede in James Bond’s bed, and (in a truly scary bit of storytelling) it crawled right up him. (In the movie they turned it into a tarantula – a mistake I felt, tarantulas aren’t nearly so creepy, but maybe it was easier to make a convincing rubber one).

  4. Otherwise it behaves like a typical scolopendra, always trying to bite you and ripping to shreds any animal that it can sink its fangs (forcipules) into.

    Could this be the basis of the Exodus out of Africa?

  5. If they are featherlike, maybe they are sensory structures akin to anal cerci of cockroaches, detecting vibrations of approaching predators.

    1. Yeah, that’s my guess. The rearmost appendages of many scolopendras are enlarged and have a sensory function, so this is most probably an exagerration of that trait. Large delicate surface area for detecting small and subtle air currents and sounds?

  6. I have no idea what the purpose of the structure might be, but it must be nefarious. That Snidely Whiplash moustache does not bode well.

  7. Very cool creature! Beautiful picture. Do the forceps bear any resemblance to any vegetation in its typical environment? Perhaps the forceps are used as camouflage to set ambushes for its prey, or as lures.

    Even less likely. Does it spend much of its time up in the canopy? Perhaps it uses its forceps to glide / control itself during a fall. Scratch that. Its visual apparatus is probably not up to taking advantage of an ability like that.

    1. The first is the same hypothesis I made – if they resemble, say, flower stamens, that could explain it. They look plant-like, and are colored differently to the rest of the body, which does kinda scream “mimic/lure”.

      The second idea is feasible, in a way – could be used to orient a falling bug to most-likely survive. At least this idea has the advantage of being testable. Easy way to test is to drop one in the view of a fast camera and see what the legs do.

      Though even if the legs are used like an arrow’s flights, it may just be a secondary feature, like most mammals can swim, but it’s probably a purpose that has been a significant evolutionary force in the limbs’ shaping.

  8. I think Piotr is in Gorongoza National Park, or that area. I have seen what I now realise must have been Alipes in Gorongoza and I am pretty sure that I have been told they are found in southern Malawi too, though I never saw them there. As my invert. interest is more towards Orthoptera my biased guess is that the ‘feathers’ may be involved in stridulation – that we can’t hear it very well doesn’t mean they might not cause vibrations.

  9. Awesome pictures – wish I could photograph like that. (I would waste the talent on plants though.)

    When in doubt, assume that a structure has something to do with sex.

  10. Those forceps don’t look like they’d be much good for capturing prey and I thought sexual selection but do insects care about that? Perhaps they are for deception like Sam suggests in post #2 above because the centipede could really whip around and give you what’s for if you mistakenly got near the back (maybe combo sensory/deception).

    Aside from its playful looking “moustache”, this creature’s appearance sure screams “stay away from me; I’m poisonous & I bite!”

      1. Yeah I realized my sloppiness when I wrote insect and not arthropod and the little peacock spiders are cute (for spiders). I guess it depends if this is the sort of centipede that does its little “accept my awesome spermatophore” dance or one of the kind that just leave it behind.

    1. It’s strange….the ones you find in houses that are fluffy – I allow those to stay if I see them because they eat other pests. People tell me those bite & I’ve read those bite while I’ve read they sting rather than bite….I need to read up on centipedes.

      1. My favorites are the ‘house centipedes’ which have very long legs. Almost everyone will recognize them as they scurry up and down the walls of your house. They have larger than usual compound eyes for a centipede, and actually their faces are sort of cute.
        Some years ago I discovered they make fun ‘pets’. Put one into a plastic box and put in a small insect like a house fly. Well, fun for some people maybe, not for the food!

  11. “Have a look at this baby, and realize that those appendages are not in the front, but are the modified rear legs of this arthropod.”

    I think you’ve hit on the purpose in this one sentence. If you look at the rear, the appendages resemble lobster claws and make the centipede seem larger and much more dangerous than it is.

  12. “Feather Leg is too poor a translation, son of Scolopender,” he said. “Wingfoot I name you.”


  13. As an earlier comments suggested, they look like flowers to me, so I thought a lure to catch some specific prey like a pollinator.

  14. I would suggest to verify first if there others like that before looking for a function. It is rarely a good idea to speculate widely from a “n” of 1. It is often when n = 2 that the real trouble starts 😉

    After all, this may be the monstruous result of a pleiotic mutation affecting both the exoskeleton and the rear-segment in one (or a few) specimen(s) of the local species. In that case, no function “needed”.

    Desnes Diev

    1. “Wildly”, not “widely”. And “pleiotropic” not “pleiotic”. I apologize.

      Desnes Diev

      1. I was under the impression that pleiotropy wasn’t considered a compelling argument anymore for such exaggerated features. If it is a feature only found in one sex of course(usually males) then sexual selection is the usual answer.

        1. I have been reading about centipedes and the males either just leave some sperm in a web package laying around (the female would be all “hey hey looky here, a spermatophore I can take) or the male does a little dance to show the female that his spermatophore is the best one ever. Somehow I just don’t think these weird back forcep thingys are for that. I’m leaning toward helping to listen for things.

          I find it amusing that some of the centipedes just leave their spermatophore laying around. It seems so meh of them 🙂

          1. It does seem odd until you consider that males and females may not meet very often, or if they do they might get it wrong and eat each other. Leaving ‘mini-me’s’ in the shape of sperm packets all over the place is likely to increase the chance of fertilising females. In turn females can choose to pick up a spermatophore or not and not risk being harassed/coerced into mating by males. It’s a rather cool system – I think springtails do something similar.

            1. I imagine the centipede says “what do you take me for, a praying mantis? No, I’ll just leave this package behind and maybe you can take it…or not”

    2. Lots of traits evolved only once, like the elephant’s trunk. Are we really supposed to consider those complex features as simply a pleiotropic result of one mutation? That seems deeply dubious for several reasons.

      1. You can’t get a complex feature as a pleiotropic byproduct of a single mutation. The trunk of the elephant has thousands of muscles, for instance. And the centipede extension is very complex.

      2. Lots of complex features, like the human brain, the elephant’s trunk, and feathers, evolved only once. A single appearance says nothing about whether a feature arose by selection or not. What suggests selection is the compexity of the trait. These appendages, like the elephant’s trunk, would be deleterious unless they had an adaptive function. In this case the reasonable null hypothesis seems to be selection for the trait per se rather than its appearance as a pleiotropic byproduct.

      1. My main point was that it would be better to ensure that these appendages characterize a species than an occasional specimens before looking for a function. (We observe the trunk in more than a few elephants after all.) I am not defending “mordicus” that they are the result of a mutation (pleiotropic or not) or other developmental defects affecting only some specimens. It was just a suggestion and it does not stand if these centipedes are more common than I was thinking.

        Desnes Diev

  15. Centipede

    Learn now the lore of the centipede –
    one built for power and one for speed.
    The two main kinds of Chilopoda
    are each distinguished from the other
    by looks, ferocity, number of legs,
    and how they lay and look after their eggs.
    Both hide by day and hunt by night;
    these lines may help you to name them right.

    The runner, Scutigera, scurries fleet,
    floating on a fringe of wide-splayed feet
    (though having only fifteen pairs of legs)
    over rock and bark and leaves and twigs.
    It rests in narrow places liked by spiders, only thinner
    (where it could make a lucky gecko’s daytime dinner);
    from spaces under bark or in between dry leaves
    it rushes out at night small insect prey to seize.

    Scolopendra, multilegged gorgon,
    scurries not, but rows itself along
    like a snake with its clawed ribs outside,
    and goes to an earthen tunnel when it hides.
    The pairs of legs in number are mostly twenty-one,
    but cousin, blind Geophilus, may well exceed the ‘ton’,
    so earns for all its brethren the name of centipede:
    only one pair per segment, on animals they feed.

    Grey like mottled lichen, like an invertebrate ghost,
    the Scutigera will rely on bursts of speed the most
    for its defence, while Scolopendra stands
    trusting its gripping claws and poison fangs
    will ward off many attackers, and its shows
    the bright warning colours each careful predator knows.
    Scutigera, like a spider, will not cross your outstretched palm;
    Scolopendra, fearless monster, crosses if you fear no harm.

    Swift long-legs buries its eggs by ones,
    covers them over, then off it runs;
    fierce biter coils around them in its den
    to hatch them out and guard them like a hen.
    Next time you see a centipede in garden or in sticks
    you’ll know at once which one might bite, and which will make off quick;
    but now you should be able, too, to tell me without error
    which one’s a scolopendromorph, and which a Scutigera.

    (I wrote this about 25 years ago. There’s nothing about Alipes in the Old Lists, but that was long ago* and perhaps new lists have been made…)

  16. The longitudintal ridges on the segments look like they might provide traction for crawling in muddy ground, sand, or wet wood. The rear “forceps” might serve a similar purpose but they look more like sensory organs to detect touch or slight movements in the sediment or vegetation of the immediate environment.

    We have the big Scolopendras here in the desert, and it’s always a treat to see one.

  17. Sexual selection?

    Lure? (after all, centipedes are predators)

    ‘False antennae’ – to confuse any would-be predators – much like the false eye-spots on butterflies and fish?


  18. Much insight would be learned by finding out the precise habitat of this species. The longitudinal ridges would help in providing a menacing rustling sound if they frequent layers of dried dead leaves. They could also be used for stridulation.
    The posterior appendages are a real ‘wild card’. If they are sex specific then they could be used in mating. They could instead be a false head display! Funny we were just blogging about that in the previous post. Other centipedes definitely do that btw, and this could be a novel one.

  19. Those appendages look to me like twigs with dead leaves or seed heads attached. Also, “Piotr saw one of these under tree bark”. I’m guessing that’s not a coincidence, and that there’s some form of mimicry involved in their function (whatever it may be).

  20. I think it’s trying to mimic something maybe, like the front/head of a moth or something? Maybe those bits look like a female moth and attract males or something!?!?! What does it eat?

  21. When we moved to St Louis from New Orleans by way of Houston, we brought a lot of cockroaches with us. I began to see them lying around dead, upside down, with their insides gone. Looked around and found that we had a number of Scutigers. Pretty soon we had no cockroaches. House centipedes look like really fast dust bunnies.

  22. Vibratory structures for detecting predators? Chemical trails for females? Sweeping the ground behind so it doesn’t cover the same area twice? Probably need to see it’s mating courtship/ritual in action to get a better idea.But a fabulous animal..!

  23. Maybe you don’t believe, but there is a lot of information hidden in BOOKS:

    Lewis, J.G.E., 1981. The Biology of Centipedes. Cambridge University Press: page 351:

    ‘Alipus crotalus of South and East Africa has large leaflike terminal legs which it vibrates rapidly to produce a rustling or fluttering sound when disturbed (Lawrence, 1953). The East African Alipes grandidieri grandidieri (Lucas) runs around with its terminal legs directed backwards and held above the ground. When irritated the animal swings the anal legs from side to side and stridulates. The legs are sometimes autotomized: when this happens they continue to stridulate. The tibia and the tarsus are expanded into membranous plates on which a smaller area is particularly thin (Fig. 207). The thickened edge of the tibia is densely covered with fine transverse furrows which rub against longitudinal furrows on the thickened edge of the tarsus when the two are rubbed together by sagittal bends of the tibia-tarsus joint (I.B. Enghoff & H. Enghoff, 1976, unpublished report).’

    So, the function of the flaps is already known since 1953, and the mechanism of sound production since 1976.

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