Photo by: John Miller with the Missouri Department of Conservation
These magnificently large centipedes are only found in a few scant counties in Southern and South Western Missouri, particularly near the Arkansas state line. Giant Red-Headed Centipedes (Scolopendra heros) belong to the family Scolopendridae in the order Scolopendromorpha.
All centipedes have odd numbered pairs of legs and only one pair of legs per body segment. They are commonly mistaken for millipedes....one way to tell the difference is to look at the legs. Millipedes always have two pairs of legs per body segment. Centipedes tend to have a flattened body whereas millipedes are more rounded. Millipedes lack venom, although some species can emit a chemical from their legs that can cause skin irritation.
S. heros range in color by location, in Missouri they are unmistakable with a black body, 21 to 23 pairs of yellow legs and reddish head. This color is referred to aposematic and offers a warning to would-be predators that they are potentially dangerous. Humans should especially heed this warning, as they can and will bite if handled. They have front legs that are modified fangs. Bites are reported to be painful and will cause swelling at the bite site. If swelling persists or other symptoms appear, medical attention should be sought. It has been reported that the legs of this species can leave tiny pin-pricks in the skin, and each leg contains venom that can be dropped into each wound. This can cause inflammation and irritation.
(Photo by: John Miller)
According to one story cited by Dr. Baerg, an officer in the Confederate Army, while sleeping in his tent, was suddenly aroused by the creepy feeling of a large centipede crawling on his chest. A number of spots of deep red, forming a broad streak, indicated the arthropod’s passage across the man’s chest and abdomen. Violent pain and convulsions soon set in, accompanied by excessive swelling in the bitten area. The victim fought with death for two days and then succumbed. The agony suffered by the bitten officer was described by an eyewitness as the most frightful he had ever observed. The famed arthtopod scientist J. L. Cloudsley-Thompson once explained that “centipedes seem to exert a weird fascination on the morbid appetites of the hysterical and insane.”
These centipedes commonly reach lengths up to 6 1/2 inches, but lengths of 8 inches have been reported. They are found on rocky hillsides, glades, under logs, stones and other protected locations. They are rarely encountered by humans because of their secretive nature, but should you come across one you won't soon forget the experience. John Miller of MDC in Southern Missouri has promised me one to add to our exhibit animals at the office where I work. He said several are brought into his offices each year to be identified and they release them. He assured me he would retain one for me. I am so excited by the prospect of having one of these amazing centipedes to use for educational purposes.
Like all centipedes they are predators and feed on a broad diet of insects, and spiders. They are fond of pinkie mice, small snakes and small amphibians too. S. heros has excellent eyesight which aids them in hunting down prey. They are also fast moving creatures and very little escapes their notice or their grasp.
Female centipedes lay eggs in rotting wood and will guard the eggs by wrapping her body around them. When the eggs hatch she will continue to stay with her offspring and look after them for a short period of time. This parental care is unusual among arthropods. The offspring will look similar to the adult, except they are lighter in color and have fewer legs. They will gain the adult coloration and proper amount of legs as they age.