Giant Red-Headed Centipede

Scolopendra heros

red_headed_centipede_12-1-11.jpg

Image of a giant red-headed centipede.
Giant red-headed centipede; sometimes called the giant desert centipede.
John Miller
Venomous
Family

Scolopendridae (giant centipedes) in the order Scolopendromorpha (tropical centipedes)

Description

A long, slender centipede with striking coloration. In our region, the body is black, the legs are bright yellow and the head and first body segment are rusty red. They are generally flattened and have 21-23 pairs of legs, with only one pair of legs per leg-bearing segment. They have a confrontational attitude and can bite with their fangs and also pinch with their last pair of legs.

Size

Length: usually up to 6 1/2 inches, but may reach 8 inches.

Habitat and conservation

They are found in rocky woodlands under rocks, wood piles or other hiding places.

Foods

All centipedes are predators. This species can feed on a wide variety of arthropods, as well as newborn mice, small snakes and small amphibians. As with most other centipedes, it possesses venomous fangs that help to subdue prey. This species, however, also uses this equipment to fight off anything that molests it, including humans.

image of Giant Red-Headed Centipede Distribution Map
Distribution in Missouri

These centipedes are found in a few counties in southern Missouri near the Arkansas state line. Mostly they live south and west of our state.

Status

They may be locally common. Sometimes called the giant desert centipede, it’s the largest centipede in North America.

Life cycle

This species often digs burrows in rotting wood; this is generally where eggs are laid. The female curls snugly around her egg mass to protect it and continues to guard the young once they hatch. Unlike some other types of centipedes, the young have the same number of legs as the adults. New hatchlings lack color but soon become brownish and eventually acquire the adult coloration.

Human connections

Bites are not fatal but may cause severe swelling and irritation for hours. If you are bitten, seek medical attention if the swelling worsens or other symptoms occur. This species might also make tiny cuts with its legs while walking across human skin, into which an irritating venom is secreted.

Ecosystem connections

The bright coloration of this centipede is an example of aposematic (“warning”) coloration. As with the distinctive black-and-white pattern of the skunk, and the black-and-yellow of hornets, these memorable colors warn potential predators of the unhappy consequences of disturbing their wearers.