Giant Red-Headed Centipede

Scolopendra heros

red-headed_centipede_12-1-11.jpg

Image of a giant red-headed centipede.
The giant red-headed centipede is the largest centipede in North America. It occurs in Missouri's southernmost counties.
John Miller
Venomous
Other Common Name
Giant Desert Centipede
Family

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

Description

The bright colors of the giant red-headed centipede have a message for you: Handle with great care! It’s of the few centipedes in our state capable of inflicting a painful, venomous bite. It is 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 they can bite with their fangs and also pinch with their last pair of legs.

Size

Length: usually up to 6½ inches, but may reach 8 inches.

Giant Red-Headed Centipede

A large black centipede with yellow legs and a bright red head crawls on the forest floor.
Giant Red-Headed Centipede at Drury Conservation Area

Giant Red-Headed Centipede

A large black centipede with yellow legs and a bright red head crawls on a rocky patch of ground.
Red-headed centipede at Bartle Scout Reservation in St. Clair county
Habitat and conservation

Occurs 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

May be locally common. The largest centipede in North America.

Reports vary greatly as to how dangerous its bite is, and there are few credible or substantiated reports of serious harm. Most authorities agree that healthy adult humans are not harmed by this centipede, except for intense pain and swelling, which is usually no worse than a wasp or scorpion sting. But infants, the elderly, or people in poor health could potentially be harmed by this animal and may need to seek treatment.

As with wasp or scorpion stings, certain individuals, if bitten, may have an allergic response that requires immediate medical treatment. If you are bitten by this animal and have difficulty breathing, seek medical treatment immediately.

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, you develop difficulty breathing, 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.