Centipedes: The story of a battle with fear that came to a happy ending.

Staehilomyces

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This is a story of my own childhood fear of centipedes. I'm posting it here for a sort of 'peer review' to see what you guys think. I intend to use this story to show people that they can get over the fears that dominate their lives if they put their hearts to it, as well as express my sadness at the relentless hate that centipedes and other arthropods face. Feel free to share this story if you know anyone who is scared of the bugs that you love so dearly. Hope you enjoy. (P.S. I'm unsure if I made any mention to images in the text - if so, the images are absent as this is purely the text).

Centipedes. They’ve got to be one of the world’s most hated creatures. I’ve seen people who keep dozens of scorpions and tarantulas as pets yet shudder in the proximity of one of these multi-legged arthropods. I’ll warn you now that this is quite a long post, but if you love centipedes already, or more importantly, are fighting a crippling centipede phobia, this is the read for you. Before I plunge into the story of my own relationship with these creatures, I’ll give you a bit of background information first.

Centipedes, like insects, arachnids and crustaceans, are arthropods – an enormously successful group of animals that have survived every great mass extinction in their path and today comprise almost 90% of all animal species. Centipedes were among the most ancient of the arthropods, indeed, the first ever known air-breathing land animal, known as Pneumodesmus newmani was a centipede-like creature. Within the arthropod family, centipedes belong to the group Myriapoda, along with the rather less menacing millipedes. Centipedes can be differentiated from the latter by the fact that they have only one pair of legs per segment, as well as their fast movements and predatory lifestyle. They are in fact among the most effective of all the invertebrate hunters prowling through the undergrowth. Larger species are capable of preying not only on other bugs, but on mice, rats, frogs, toads, birds and even small snakes, not to mention other arthropod predators such as spiders and scorpions. They also hunt bats – I’ll go into the full details of that later, as that knowledge was a key moment in my journey from fear to fascination. Centipedes are guided to their quarry by a pair of extremely sensitive antennae, which pick up the faintest of scents. They will persistently follow the chemical trail until they find their potential prey. Prey is subdued by a combination of brute strength and venom. A long muscular body is used to hold prey still in a manner alike to a python, aided by the centipede’s clawed legs. Then, a pair of specialised legs on the segment just behind the head deliver the final blow. They have been modified into a pair of venomous mandible like appendages (known as forcipules or maxillipeds) that puncture their prey’s skin/exoskeleton and deliver a potent venom.

So I presume you have enough to go off for now, and I hope that the absence of a picture of a huge, foot-long centipede right at the top of the page means that you are still reading this.

Some say that fear of centipedes and other “creepy-crawlies” such as spiders is instinctive. It is certain that some other fears certainly are. Fear of heights would have been helpful to the survival of ancestral humans, as potentially lethal drops would almost certainly have been a prevalent and deadly threat. Bugs are a different matter. From my experience, no child is born with the loathing you see in many an adult when in the presence of such creatures. If anything, they have an avid fascination of all things living, and bugs are no exception. But fear is contagious. Combine peer pressure, misguidance from parents, and fearmongering from the media, and you have all the ingredients for a severe, lifelong phobia. The simple sight of a parent stomping on that spider crouching in the corner prompts a child to react in the same way when presented with a similar situation. Even without any action, sometimes all it takes are a few words.

I vividly remember the words that sparked my childhood fear of centipedes. I was five years old, sitting in my house in Cairns, North Queensland. I was flipping through one of those children’s drawing books, that showed step by step details on how to draw various animals and whatnot, trying to find out what to draw next. We were learning about insects at preschool, so I thought a bug of some description would be most appropriate. I was searching amongst the plethora of six-legged creatures looking for something unique, but it was always the same old grasshoppers, ants and butterflies. I paused to consider a spider, but…everyone’s seen those. Then, I turned the page once more, and saw a strange and, as I recall saying, “awesome” creature. I was about to touch pen to paper when my father looked over my shoulder. “Ugh, centipedes,” he said. “Draw anything except one of those mongrels. They can kill you.” Lo and behold! The seeds of a phobia were sown.

So naturally, when it came to my first encounter with a centipede, there was a bit of pre-determined hate before the meeting. A favourite pastime of mine back then was turning the garden hose on full blast and pulverising the garden beds. It may explain why our plants never lasted longer than a week. Naturally, as you would have likely guessed, it was the setting of my first ever meeting with this demon of the bug world. Right out of the midst of the flooded garden, a centipede came running. It was doing no more than fleeing from the tsunami I had caused, but fleeing straight in my direction nonetheless. A child’s mind, warped by fear, gathered but one thing out of the situation. This was clearly a creature that wanted me dead. But before I knew it, it had disappeared benath the fence. Needless to say both my dreams and waking moments were dominated by the thought of that multi-legged monstrosity seeking vengeance upon me.

Four centipede-hating years later, I was in Brisbane, my family having moved there the year before (nothing to do with centipedes by the way). I was in the DVD store, looking for a show to buy, when a particular image caught my eye: the distinctive profile of Dionaea muscipula, the Venus Fly Trap, a plant that had fascinated me ever since I first saw them in Cairns. This seems nothing to do with my relationship with centipedes, but bear with me. Above the image were the words The Private Life of Plants, and below the image was a name that I see to this day as the number one cause for my love of nature: David Attenborough. Before I knew it, I was hooked. Every single one of his documentaries made me love the natural world outside more and more, and before I knew it, I had seen about fifteen of his series in the course of a few weeks. One day, after a typical day spent shopping, I bought home Life in the Undergrowth. Knowing what the series was about, I guessed that somewhere in the show, my bug-world adversary was lurking. I watched millipedes plough through the undergrowth, springtails leap extraordinary heights, and velvet worms hunt with their bizarre weaponry – all with a newfound awe. Then, after a dramatic fight between two tailless whipscorpions (Amblypygi), my nemesis appeared. It was a diminutive centipede that was, to my comfort, half the size of Attenborough’s little finger. But what followed was anything but diminutive. Out of a crevice in a Venezuelan cave came Scolopendra gigantea, the giant centipede, a creature with a body length exceeding 35 centimetres. I normally would have screamed NOPE! and blasted the TV into oblivion, but something about Attenborough’s voice kept me watching. Scolopendra scaled the wall of the cave with ease, and hung from the ceiling. What followed was both alarming and truly remarkable. It reached down into the open air with the front of its body, and within seconds, had a bat in the grasp of its many legs. Then, as the scene faded from the huge centipede to a landscape populated by giant earthworms, I realised something remarkable. While my fear certainly hadn’t gone, my hate had given way to sheer, utter respect and fascination.

With its villainous position in my mind eased, the centipede’s significance in my life faded also in the coming years. But I never forgot about the invertebrate predator so formidable it was able to turn the tables on small vertebrates. So it was that when I was in a pet shop, browsing the aquatic life on sale, something in the adjacent reptile section caught my eye. Atop several shelves of terrarium decorations were two plastic boxes, both labelled “large centipede”. “What harm can they do to me while in a box?” I asked myself, and with that in mind, I bought them. But at a mere twelve years old, I was not the most attentive owner. Before I knew it, almost six months elapsed where I hadn’t given my two centipedes one glance. Then, almost certain that they were stone dead, I reluctantly checked. One, a large dark green Ethmostigmus rubripes, was indeed dead. The other, a young male Scolopendra morsitans, miraculously survived my neglect. I whispered an apology (pointless, I know) and promised to take better care of him. He remains with me to this day, five years later.

I was quite proud of my progress at that moment. To go from someone who would not be able to sleep if he knew there was a centipede in the house to someone who kept them as pets was no small feat to me. Nevertheless, much as my fear had been eased, I saw those people who handled their centipedes as idiots who were just asking for an envenomation. Don’t get me wrong, I liked centipedes then, but I was still nervous about them.

Earlier this year, I joined the largest online database concerning invertebrates, Arachnoboards. The majority of the time I spend on there is browsing the myriapods section, which details centipedes and millipedes. In that forum, one member seemed to be unearthing startling observations regarding the intelligence of centipedes. Ever since Life in the Undergrowth, I suspected that centipedes were more intelligent than most bugs – the fact that they go through a specific procedure to catch bats, ignoring lesser prey like cockroaches and beetles along the way, suggested that they were hunting with a purpose, not relying on chance to bring them to their prey. As such, claims about the intelligence of centipedes seemed somewhat plausible to me. The user maintained that centipedes would eventually get used to handling, and will even respond to stimulus such as hand feeding by emerging whenever the owner’s hand was placed in the enclosure (I’m not in any way condoning the handling of centipedes, what I am detailing here is from my observations only). I was hesitant at first, knowing that centipedes weren’t exactly the friendliest of creatures. Even so, I decided to try it out on my Scolopendra morsitans, even though he was by far the jumpiest centipede in what was now a small collection of mine. Miraculously, after a week of gentle, cautious hand interactions, he became extremely docile, and no matter what showed no signs of aggression of any kind. He would take food from my fingers and even drink water out of my cupped hand. I could even (no joke) scratch him behind the head! That was the final, happy ending to my relationship with that individual, with centipedes, and with the bug world as a whole. I respected their formidability, be it their venom, speed, or just brute strength. Now, I have one more thing to respect them about: the fact that their behaviour showed me that there is no bold line separating bugs from other animals.

For those of you who think overcoming fear is stomping on that big ugly bug who in actuality is either scared to death of you or simply unaware of your presence, it’s not. Perhaps the fear is diminished, but the hate remains. Experience has showed me that it’s always better to get to know what you fear. It’s hard to hate something that you truly understand. Turning hate and fear into respect, fascination and love is truly one of the greatest feelings one can experience. When it comes to a peaceful, understanding relationship with the weird and wonderful creatures we share this planet with, knowledge is our ultimate ally; fear is the enemy. If we can better understand and appreciate all the animals that inhabit this world, not just the ones that “look cuter” or whatever, then the world we live in will become a brighter place for all.

So that's it. Let me know what you think!
 

Chris LXXIX

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They always fascinated me, even if back then I/We used to call them, in general, "Scolopendra/s" without being too technical (ah ah, a memento of my brat era).

Since 1992, the year when, as a teen, with my brother and a couple of friends started to keep arachnids (after years of WC local pillaging :embarrassed:).

Yet I've never owned one until last year. You know... the same story: at first you start with the somewhat calm NW's one, then a couple of scorpions (mostly Asians, one from Arizona U.S, a P.imperator) then T's again, for years... the intermediate ones. The army. A couple of Asian OW's, received for free from keepers scared of the 2003 arachnid ban occurred here in Italy. The rest was business as usual... P.cancerides, 'Phamps', then 'Baboons'. Lots of T's. But never a centipede. Not even the native S.cingulata, that lives in the southern part of Center and (mostly & more) in Southern Italy: search well under those rocks and you will find one, sooner or later. Nope. Still today I wonder why.

Until the day I've decided to buy one, a S.subspinipes. Sold as unsexed (normality, here in Europe the centipedes trade is 99% WC, no one bother, nor IMO everyone knows, to sex them) she was gravid and gave me 25 pedelings (one died, sadly). So 24 pedelings... lol, more or less the years I've spent with arachnids.

Packed & shipped: now they live in another home, happy... mommy's :kiss: enclosure is just behind my back while I'm typing on PC here lol

It's true what you said... incredible, centipedes aren't loved like T's and arachnids in general are. T's are escape masters? Pffff... try one of those first :-s

We need more centipedes, more centipedes keepers, more availability etc :angelic:
 

Chris LXXIX

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Ah ah btw I loved to read on Henri Charrière book "Papillon" about that 'shower' of huge scolopendra he had while in jail in French Guyana, or when in "The Brothers Karamazov" of Dostoevskij, Mitja and Alesa talks about the scolopendra that bitten him (muahahahah) and he remained ill for two weeks in the bed :-s
 

Venom1080

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Cool story. Nice to see more people get over their fear of arthropods.
 

Staehilomyces

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I've been trying to help some of my friends at school get over their fears, and in many ways I'm succeeding, but there's one idiot who always kills bugs in front of me because he knows it upsets me. Still, his attempts to make me angry are amusing. He once said in an email, which the whole grade saw, "I just went around the school and killed about fifty bugs bahahahaha!" I responded "That was silly. You could've killed twice as many bugs by falling over (he's fat)". That shut him up.
 

RTTB

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Great story.I hope more people with such phobias or misunderstandings can become enlightened about what truly amazing creatures that centipedes are.
 

Staehilomyces

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Great story.I hope more people with such phobias or misunderstandings can become enlightened about what truly amazing creatures that centipedes are.
Thanks for that. I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one on these boards with a story of overcoming a phobia of some sort of invert.
 

Stugy

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Fun story. Somewhat same for me except the fact that I don't own a centipede (YET MUAHAHAHA). What would possibly be a good starter centipede? I'm thinking of giving myself a good challenge and purchasing a VietPede (ya know, the dehaani and subspinies or whatever).
 

RTTB

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I would start with a Scolopendra polymorpha. The centipede you mentioned has the reputation for being very aggressive and give nasty bites. Maybe not a good beginner centipede.
 

Stugy

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Sounds like a fun centipede to have. I just remembered that in NM (where I visit every year), I'll probably actually try to look for Scolopendra polymorpha (I presume. I never see them but i know they are common in the area). Might as well wait and get them for free :) With the VietPede, I like aggressive stuff lol. It's exciting and really gets the adrenaline going ya know. Plus they are fairly inexpensive which is convenient.
 

Staehilomyces

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Yeah, Dehaani seem pretty impressive. As long as you know what an animal is capable of, how dangerous it is shouldn't matter. All the same, I feel as though part of the bad reputation of centipedes in the hobby is owed to Dehaani's prevalence in the trade. If the most commonly kept centipede was something like E.trignopodus or S.angulata then I presume centipedes would be much less feared.
 

socalqueen

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I was really happy to read this story. I grew up in a rural desert area and saw many centipedes, scorpions, snakes and countless other creatures. You would think that I would be accustomed to taking a hike and encountering a scorpion or snake. Nope. I remember one evening I was walking out to the clothes line, barefoot (I know, I know) and as I took a step I heard a rattle. It froze me, I quickly looked down into the eyes of the biggest rattler (the size has grown over the years as I've told the tale, it's now being described as a 12ft rattler with glowing red eyes) I had ever seen. It was directly in front of my bare foot, and drawn up, prepared to strike. I screamed a scream that would make old school horror movie starlets jealous, and sprinted back to the house. I made it to the front door in 2.5 seconds, and my dad met me, questioning me as to what the hell was wrong, I stood there screaming, and finally the words came..."big snake!" "Rattler!!" Dad grabbed the shot gun, and proceeded to blast that rattler into shreds. In retrospect, I had no business being barefoot, and it was only doing what it knows to do, protect itself. But then, all I could think about was that snake, that I could've died, and it made me paranoid. From that point on I was terrified to hike, scared to go outside at night, it really messed me up. It took me years to overcome my fear of rattle snakes, and I saw probably 50 more over the years. Now, I have a heart for snakes. If I could, I would own a rattler as I find them
Intriguing. I respect them and their nature. Anyways, my fear was conquered just through bravery and boredom, I was tired of staying indoors, tired of missing out on hikes with friends, and really tired of hanging out with my folks all the time. Thanks for sharing your story!!!
 

Chris LXXIX

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With the VietPede, I like aggressive stuff lol. It's exciting and really gets the adrenaline going ya know. Plus they are fairly inexpensive which is convenient.
Asia and Oceania centipedes are the best :-s
 

Staehilomyces

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I was really happy to read this story. I grew up in a rural desert area and saw many centipedes, scorpions, snakes and countless other creatures. You would think that I would be accustomed to taking a hike and encountering a scorpion or snake. Nope. I remember one evening I was walking out to the clothes line, barefoot (I know, I know) and as I took a step I heard a rattle. It froze me, I quickly looked down into the eyes of the biggest rattler (the size has grown over the years as I've told the tale, it's now being described as a 12ft rattler with glowing red eyes) I had ever seen. It was directly in front of my bare foot, and drawn up, prepared to strike. I screamed a scream that would make old school horror movie starlets jealous, and sprinted back to the house. I made it to the front door in 2.5 seconds, and my dad met me, questioning me as to what the hell was wrong, I stood there screaming, and finally the words came..."big snake!" "Rattler!!" Dad grabbed the shot gun, and proceeded to blast that rattler into shreds. In retrospect, I had no business being barefoot, and it was only doing what it knows to do, protect itself. But then, all I could think about was that snake, that I could've died, and it made me paranoid. From that point on I was terrified to hike, scared to go outside at night, it really messed me up. It took me years to overcome my fear of rattle snakes, and I saw probably 50 more over the years. Now, I have a heart for snakes. If I could, I would own a rattler as I find them
Intriguing. I respect them and their nature. Anyways, my fear was conquered just through bravery and boredom, I was tired of staying indoors, tired of missing out on hikes with friends, and really tired of hanging out with my folks all the time. Thanks for sharing your story!!!
Thanks for sharing your story! You must therefore understand how good it feels to replace fear and hate with love and fascination. Glad you enjoyed my story too!
 

socalqueen

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Thanks for sharing your story! You must therefore understand how good it feels to replace fear and hate with love and fascination. Glad you enjoyed my story too!
I definitely understand. Its ironic how something that terrifies us can turn out to be something we end up seeking out and truly enjoying.
 

Scoly

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I have a similar relationship with centipedes. My first was an 8-9" Dehanni with plastic-orange legs that acted like it had been reared on angel dust. It was so fast, strong and aggressive, and I'd heard about the venom too. I was scared of it. It took me a year to figure out a way I could get it out of its enclosure to clean it out. When it died I chucked in the bin and had the bin bag out on the streets in under 3 seconds, lest it resuscitate! For 10 years after that I lived firmly in the "you do NOT handle centipedes" camp and that's what I told everyone. I had some smaller less aggro pedes too, but they were still in the no touchy zone.

Then I found wild centipedes in Southern Italy, and got onto watching youtube videos of them being handled, and ended up keeping them again after 10 years of not owning anything (minus a brief spell with a S. Morsitans which had hitched a lift in a friend of a friend's suitcase which I looked after for a few weeks before selling it on, which reminded me how mental these little creatures are). I tried some of the techniques to chill them out, and found that a few could easily be picked up without much interaction. Others that started out really aggressive did indeed tame down.

The thing I learnt is that some centipedes are just not that bitey, others will let you touch them or pick them up because they are lethargic due to ill health. But there is a big difference between conditioning a centipede and letting one run around on your hands and it not biting you. I also think there are differences between individuals, genders and species (like tarantulas). The subspinipes family for example seems very highly strung. Ethmostigmus trigonopodus yellow legs are mental, whereas blue leg seem very chilled. I also not a difference between male and female of the same species, with the males being a lot more aggressive (any one else notice this?)
 
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Staehilomyces

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I also not a difference between male and female of the same species, with the males being a lot more aggressive (any one else notice this?)
Really? I'll look into this a little further. If you wish to create a thread on this matter, feel free. I do see some credibility in this notion myself. My old S. morsitans was really flighty/aggressive prior to being handled. Meanwhile, my female (confirmed, as she laid eggs, which she later ate, to my dismay) E. rubripes was really quite docile. In stark contrast, my other E. rubripes of unknown gender is extremely aggressive.
 

Scoly

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Really? I'll look into this a little further. If you wish to create a thread on this matter, feel free. I do see some credibility in this notion myself. My old S. morsitans was really flighty/aggressive prior to being handled. Meanwhile, my female (confirmed, as she laid eggs, which she later ate, to my dismay) E. rubripes was really quite docile. In stark contrast, my other E. rubripes of unknown gender is extremely aggressive.
How about sexing them? I use the drown in (dechlorinated) water technique (leave 1hr +) and had no problems.

I've noticed this with my two A. Chilensis and my two S. Cingulata (the sexing happening after I had noticed the difference in temperament), so not really conclusive, but yeah, worth a shot.

I also remember seeing a comment about that effect on the facebook page that used to be Scolopendra Harwickei appreciation or something, about that same species, but I no longer have access to that page, as the admin (Brad) banned me (my only guess is that I correcting him on something really basic in a comment and he couldn't handle being wrong :D:D:D)
 

Staehilomyces

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How about sexing them? I use the drown in (dechlorinated) water technique (leave 1hr +) and had no problems.

I've noticed this with my two A. Chilensis and my two S. Cingulata (the sexing happening after I had noticed the difference in temperament), so not really conclusive, but yeah, worth a shot.

I also remember seeing a comment about that effect on the facebook page that used to be Scolopendra Harwickei appreciation or something, about that same species, but I no longer have access to that page, as the admin (Brad) banned me (my only guess is that I correcting him on something really basic in a comment and he couldn't handle being wrong :D:D:D)
What's that Brad guy like? I've heard pretty bad things from Mastigoproctus about him. At one point, I heard that he apparently bullied someone who was mentioning how they handle centipedes into handling a dehaani to prove him wrong. Needless to say, he simply resorted to a ban.
 
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