Strange and Unusual Millipedes

Millipedes are often ignored as small, harmless, insignificant critters. It's a mistake to ignore them, however. There are some fascinating millipedes out there. Besides some of the more colorful animals, there is an entire genus in California that is bioluminescent. Not all millipedes are harmless, either. A few species can produce noxious secretions.


Luminous Millipedes

This is a genus of small millipedes found in California. While a few species of centipedes are known to have luminous secretions, these are the only millipedes known to be bioluminescent. What is especially interesting is that these millipedes are blind. Why the luminescence?

  • Causey, N.B., and D.L. Tiemann. 1969. A revision of the bioluminescent millipedes of the genus Motyxia (Xystodesmidae, Polydesmida). Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 113(1): 14-33.
  • Davenport, D., D.M. Wootton, and J.E. Cushing. 1952. The biology of the Sierra luminous millipede, Luminodesmus sequoiae, Loomis and Davenport. Biol. Bulletin 102: 100-110.


"Dangerous" Millipedes

Millipedes are generally considered to be harmless, boring invertebrates. Actually, a number of species are capable of producing noxious secretions (usually containing benzoquinones) which can create superficial "burns" on human skin and can cause damage to the eyes. Most of these species are found in the tropics. The burning effect can range from superficial stains or tanning to blistering. Scarring doesn't occur, but the burn site can be noticeable for up to 14 months. When the secretions enter an eye, they cause a severe pain for up to two days. There can be swelling and discharge from the eye. Species which are known to be injurious include Rhinocricus lethifer (Haiti), Rhinocricus latespagor (Haiti), Polyceroconas spp. (PNG), Spirostreptus spp. (Indonesia), Iulus spp. (Indonesia), Spirobolus spp. (Tanzania), Orthoporus spp. (Mexico), and Tylobolus spp. (California). Several of these are "giant millipedes." There are a number of "giant black millipedes" in the pet trade, but those appear to be harmless species. I should also mention that most "harmless" millipedes do discharge a secretion which can create a mild burning sensation if it gets into a recent cut.

  • Mason, G.H., H.D.P. Thomson, P. Fergin, and R. Anderson. Mysterious lesions: the burning millipede. The Medical Journal of Australia 160(11): 718, 726.
  • Radford, A.J. 1975. Millipede burns in man. Tropical and Geographical Medicine 27: 279-287.
  • Radford, A.J. 1976. Giant millipede burns in Papua New Guinea. Papua New Guinea Medical Journal 18(3): 138-141.
  • Shpall, S., and I. Frieden. 1991. Mahogany discoloration of the skin due to the defensive secretion of a millipede. Pediatric Dermatology 8(1): 25-27.


Jumping Millipedes

Hopkin and Read mention a millipede, Diopsiulus regressus, which is capable of jumping 2 to 3 centimeters when startled. It does this by humping its body and throwing the "loop" forward. The millipede itself is 3 to 4 centimeters long. Myriapod biologist Amber Billey kindly provided further information on this species. D. regressus was described by Silvestri in 1916, and it is found in the African country of Guinea.

  • Hopkin, S.P., and H.J. Read. 1992. The Biology of Millipedes. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Original description in: 1916, Silvestri. Bollettino del Laboratorio di Entomologia e Agraria della R. Scuola Superiore d’Agricoltura in Portici, 10:335


Army Recruits

Hopkin and Read mention that several species of polydesmid millipedes travel and live with army ants in South America. They live in the ant nests and scavenge food they come across, helping to clean out organic debris and mold in the ant nest. When the ants move to a new location, the millipedes travel in the center of the ant column, or are even carried by worker ants.

  • Hopkin, S.P., and H.J. Read. 1992. The Biology of Millipedes. New York: Oxford University Press.


Dirt-eating Millipedes

Most millipedes feed on decayng vegetation, but Shelley mentions one species of semi-aquatic millipede from caves in Italy which has mouthpart "modified to remove organic, clay, and limestone particles from the substrates of rivulets and moist surfaces of banks."

  • Shelley, R.M. 1999. Centipedes and millipedes. Kansas School Naturalist 45(3): 1-16