Seeing a millipede crawling on your home’s corridors may startle you. It’s even more creepy when the chubby multi-legged creature curls itself into a tight spiral when you touch it with a broomstick. In such a case, you may wonder what brought such a creature to your home in the first place.
One may assume that millipedes are motivated to visit your house by the urge to find grub to eat. This line of thought, in turn, gives rise to the probing question, “what do millipedes eat”? Since they’re typically active at night and in concealment under rocks or piles of leaves, it may be challenging to determine the diet of millipedes during the day.
Accordingly, we’ll reveal millipedes’ feeding habits and diet in this comprehensive guide. This exhaustive piece will enable individuals to identify what attracts millipedes to their homes and prevent millipede infestation. Meanwhile, people keeping millipedes as pets will equally find this article beneficial as it’ll help them realize their pets’ nutritional needs and provide adequate nutrition for them.
Before proceeding with the main topic, let’s quickly evaluate the makeup of the “thousand-legged creatures” called millipedes.
What Are Millipedes: A Recap of the Biology of Millipedes
Millipedes (Latin: mille: thousand; ped: foot) are elongated multi-legged arthropods belonging to the class Diplopoda. Like centipedes, they belong to the arthropod group Myriapoda, whose members possess multiple legs. With about 10,000 living species, these creatures are found worldwide.
They were first noticed in the Silurian period and are one of the planet’s most ancient land animals. The longest living species is the giant African millipede (Archispirostreptus gigas).
One distinctive characteristic of millipedes is the presence of numerous double trunk segments, diplosomites, created from the merging of two segments, on their flattened or cylindrical body. With two pairs of legs on almost every diplosomite, they have up to 200 pairs of legs. However, their first segment—the head—lacks legs, and the following three components only comprise one pair of legs each.
Aside from the first four diplosomite, each segment possesses two internal organs, including two pairs of ganglia and two pairs of circulatory arteries. The head or first segment includes antennae, ocelli (simple eyes), and an unpaired maxilla.
The length of millipedes ranges from 2 to 280 millimeters (0.08 to 11 inches). Another variable feature is the number of segments. Depending on the species, the number of segments varies from 11 to 100+.
Generally, millipedes are harmless to humans. Still, some can become garden or household pests. They’re particularly unwelcome in greenhouses, where they can cause significant damage to young growing seedlings.
Fun Fact — Most orders of millipedes have calcareous dorsal plates as protection. Rather than biting when attacked, most millipedes defend themselves by tucking headfirst into a tight coil, exposing their exoskeleton, and secreting a foul-smelling, toxic liquid or gas from lateral glands.
Millipedes respire through two pairs of spiracles situated near the base of the legs on the ventral aspect of each segment. Each spiracle opens into an internal pouch and communicates with a tracheal system.
With an aorta stretching into the head segment, millipedes possess a heart running the entire length of the body. Located near the mid-part of their gut are two pairs of malignant tubules for excretion. These multi-legged creatures possess an uncomplicated digestive tract with two pairs of salivary glands to facilitate food digestion.
In terms of reproduction, millipedes exhibit various mating techniques and structures. The males of most millipede species have one or two pairs of modified legs, gonopods, used to transfer sperm to the females during coupling. Still, bristly millipedes mate indirectly by the males depositing substances called spermatophores, subsequently picked up by the females, on specially-secreted webs.
Some millipede species employ the asexual means—parthenogenesis—when reproducing.
Habitat of Millipedes
Millipedes spend most of their time outdoors, for instance, on lawns or backyards. They tend to live in damp areas because they require adequate moisture for survival. Around the backyard, millipedes may be found in gardens and flowerbeds.
Some favorite spots of millipedes in the yard include:
- Under mulch
- Under dead leaves
- Under heaps of grass clippings
- Under rocks
- Beneath wet wood
Meanwhile, millipedes may dwell in the thatch layer between the grass and the soil in well-established lawns.
Millipedes may also inhabit beneath exterior shelters in your home, such as garden sheds. Additionally, it’s not surprising to find them under a dog house-type enclosure.
What Do Millipedes Eat: Common Species of Millipedes and a Hint at Their Diet
There are about 12,000 known millipede species with slight to significant distinction. In North America, most millipedes have cylindrical bodies and drag their movement. Still, flat-bodied species also inhabit other parts of the world.
The following sections present major millipedes commonly found around homes and gardens.
These notable species include:
- Julid millipede (Cylindroiulus caeruleocinctus)
- White-legged snake millipede (Tachypodoiulus niger)
- Striped millipede (Ommatoiulus sabulosus)
- Giant African millipede (Archispirostreptus gigas)
- American giant millipede (Narceus americanus)
- Flat-backed millipedes (Polydesmida)
- Bristly millipedes (Polyxenida)
Let’s look at some essential and unique details about these millipedes mentioned above.
1. Julid millipede (Cylindroiulus caeruleocinctus)
Cylindroiulus caeruleocinctus is a large millipede that takes the shape of a kidney and sits in the 20–30 millimeters length range. This species possesses a subtle mix of brown-black color with edges similar to brass on its segments. However, it lacks a backward-pointing projection on the telson — the last body segment.
They’re typically dominant in open habitats, particularly grasslands. Although occurring in small woods and hedges, they’re rarely found in the forest. Rather, these millipedes are common in parks, gardens, waste places, and cemeteries.
One survey suggests that the preferred diets of Cylindroiulus caeruleocinctus are broad leaves, grasses, and mosses. These millipedes hibernate and aestivate within the soil and are more active during the spring season. With large populations in residential areas, this species is known to attack crops.
2. White-Legged Snake Millipede (Tachypodoiulus niger)
The white-legged snake millipede is characterized by its distinct appearance bearing different colors — pale brown segments and darker spots on its lateral aspects. This species can grow up to 25 millimeters and have an eye area across the eyes with black facades and a light tail end.
They mainly conceal themselves in moist woodlands and gardens and, under rotting foliage and leaf waste, or beneath decomposing wood, deriving their nutrients from decaying leaves, dead plant matter, and algae.
Quick Fact — As its name implies, the white-legged snake millipede has a tubular black body holding approximately 100 tiny contrasting white legs.
This species possesses a pointy hind projection directed away from the telson and a protruding posterior segment.
The white-legged snake millipede is valuable in the backyard, where it re-fortifies the soil with decaying plant matter, thus facilitating soil fertility.
3. Striped Millipede (Ommatoiulus sabulosus)
The striped millipede is a European species belonging to the family Julidae. It has a cylindrical, pudgy, and brown body. Named after the two striking ginger stripes occurring on the dorsal surface of their segmented body, striped millipedes are among the largest species of millipedes.
This species is prevalent in Central Europe and the British Isles. It has an extensive habitat range, including:
- Open areas: Fields, meadows, and roadside edges
- Sandy areas, particularly in the day
- Leaf-litter of pine, beech, and oak forests
Striped millipedes are fond of hiding beneath old logs, at treetops, or in internal walls. They occur at elevations varying from sea level to 2,800 meters. Occasionally, they exist in large numbers and engage in mass migrations.
Fun Fact — As excellent scavengers, striped millipedes are beneficial animals. They consume leafage, rotten wood, and other dead plant matter, yielding humus that plants exploit for growth.
4. Giant African Millipede (Archispirostreptus gigas)
The giant African millipede is the world’s largest living millipede species, reaching lengths of 38.5 centimeters (15.2 inches) and a circumference of 67 millimeters (2.6 inches). Although the leg count differs among different creatures, this number typically sits at 256.
This species is prevalent in East Africa’s lowlands, from Mozambique to Kenya. Still, it rarely exceeds altitudes of 1000 meters (3300 feet).
Giant African millipedes are black and have 7-10 years of life expectancy.
Fun Fact — Giant African millipedes have two methods of defending themselves against potential predators. First, they curl into a tight spiral protecting their vulnerable parts with their hard exoskeleton. Alternatively, they secrete irritating liquids from their body pores, harmful if they contact other species’ eyes and mouth. These defensive mechanisms make it one of the few invertebrates that drivers ants can’t take as prey.
Small mites often crawl on the giant millipede’s exoskeleton and betwixt its legs. This millipede has a symbiotic relationship with the mites. The mite helps clean the giant millipede’s exoskeleton in exchange for food and protection.
The giant African millipede is a herbivore that feeds on old and decaying but not rotten plant materials.
5. American Giant Millipede (Narceus americanus)
Native to North America, the American giant millipede can reach lengths of 10 centimeters. This species has a cylindrical shape, contrary to the regular-sized flattened millipedes found elsewhere.
American giant millipedes are black or dark red-brown, with the lateral aspects of individual segments bearing a red line. One distinct feature about this species is that it possesses two pairs of legs on each segment instead of a pair. Still, their first four segments hold just one pair of legs.
This North American species dwells in rotting logs or underneath the soil and comes to the surface during spring for mating purposes. Like their African counterparts, the American giant millipede consumes decaying plant matter.
6. Flat-Backed Millipedes (Polydesmida)
The Polydesmida class comprises approximately 3,500 millipede species. Its members are called flat-backed millipedes because of the keels present on their individual body segments. Individual species have lengths that sit around 3 to 130 millimeters.
Although flat-backed millipedes lack eyes, they bear tiny pairs of legs, starting at the lower sections of their segmented body.
Polydesmida comprises all millipedes reported to produce hydrogen cyanide. Most larger species give off warning coloration to apprise potential predators of their toxic liquid secretions.
These millipedes are typically seen in rotting leaves, providing the majority of their nutritional requirements.
7. Bristly Millipedes (Polyxenida)
Polyxenida is a unique millipede order comprising at least 86 species found worldwide. Its members have a soft, non-calcified exoskeleton with unusual tufts of bristles. The latter feature is responsible for the group’s name, “bristly millipedes.”
In addition, individuals have relatively few legs, not exceeding 17 pairs, and the males lack copulatory appendages. They’re small, generally less than 7 millimeters (0.28 inches).
Quick Fact — Bristly millipedes lack the hard exoskeleton and chemical defense mechanism found in other millipedes. Instead, they employ a unique defense mechanism when threatened. Their distinct barbed bristles can easily detach from their body and become affixed in the limbs and mouth-parts of potential predators, effectively rendering them immobile.
Bristly millipedes are found in damp, dark areas, consuming rotten vegetation.
Millipedes’ Diet and Feeding Habitats: What Do Millipedes Eat?
Millipedes are slow-moving detrivores that feed on anything decaying, including rotting plant matter, decomposing bodies of other arthropods, feces, and decaying carcasses of animals.
Most millipedes are scavengers in their natural habitat. They eat damp or decaying wood particles, decaying leaves, and other plant matter. If they run out of food supply in their habitats, they may attack living plants. They can obtain moisture from green leaves and soft roots.
Millipedes shed their skin several times as they mature, a process termed “molting.” After every molt, millipedes feed on the shed-off skins. Some scholars opine that this habit helps them regain lost calcium.
Occasionally, millipedes feed on small insects, snails, and earthworms. Thus, they appear to be opportunistic eaters for decaying stuff.
Depending on the particular millipede species, their list of diet includes:
- Tree bark
- Decaying plant fescue
- Plant materials, including leaves or buds
- Decaying carcasses
- Other bugs
- Fungi or mushrooms
In the wild, millipedes prefer to dwell in a damp and moist environment. The humid environments facilitate the decomposition of organic matter, making them ideal for millipedes.
Some millipede species are omnivores, consuming both plants and animal-based diets, while others like Callipodida and Chordeumatida are occasionally carnivorous.
How Much Food Do Millipedes Eat?
Millipedes can eat almost five times their body weight between the period they hatch from their egg and once they reach adulthood. They achieve this feeding plan by feeding on rotting leaves and other plant matter on moist forest floors.
Although millipedes aren’t purely selective eaters, they show preferences that vary from one creature to another. Several millipede pet owners experience this tendency when feeding their millipedes.
Pet owners are expected to begin with a cup of food per day when feeding their millipede. If the millipede doesn’t eat much, toss out the meal the following day in place of another. Usually, overeating isn’t a millipede’s principal concern.
Millipedes possess small teeth and mandibles used to pull in their food. So, these multi-legged creatures can eat a significant amount of decomposing plant matter. Surprisingly, large millipedes can be voracious eaters in captivity, reaching up to a foot.
Millipedes as Pets
Millipedes, particularly the giant African millipede, are employed as relatively low-maintenance pets by arthropod lovers. Although millipedes can be a bit slippery, pet owners can keep numerous millipedes in an enclosed tank in their homes.
Some food sources for pet millipedes include:
- Rotting plant material
- Decomposing bark or twigs
- Wet cat or dog food
- Wet fish flakes
- Living moss
Maintaining the moisture level of your millipede’s home is critical to their comfort. Millipedes cherish a warm environment with sufficient moisture and are fond of places where they can hide, such as beneath the soil or ornamental rocks.
As pets, millipedes are bold and curious eaters. Hence, many pet experts urge millipede owners to offer their millipedes various food.
Bear in mind that your present millipede may not enjoy the preferred food of a pet you had in the past. Millipedes don’t require an extra water dish. As long as their enclosure is humid and moist, they’ll hydrate themselves.
How Do Millipedes Eat?
It may be surprising to hear millipedes have mouths and teeth due to their relatively small size. In reality, they have mandibles, a lower jaw, and a few tiny but effective teeth. Millipedes make use of these nutritional apparatus when feeding.
It takes at least a year from when a millipede hatched for the creature to reach maturity. Yet, development varies with the species, with some needing an entire decade to attain adulthood.
Since millipedes can live that long, they require a dependable mandible and set of teeth to feed effectively.
Predators of Millipedes
Millipedes have numerous predators because they’re much more sluggish and gentler than their centipede cousins. Even their chemical defense, a hard exoskeleton, and reclusiveness can’t protect them from various predators, including rodents, other bugs, birds, and reptiles.
Typical millipede predators include:
The preference of millipedes to spend most of their time underground, under leaves, and beneath wood also serves to hide from potential predators. Unfortunately, this behavior isn’t enough to keep them safe from more powerful, hungry predators.
Relevance of Millipedes’ Nutritional Habits to the Ecosystem
According to functional ecology, millipedes are essential components of the tropical ecosystem. Millipedes and snails are two crucial creatures that can consume decaying plant matter. These critters ultimately support a forest’s health and wellness by facilitating fertile soil.
Notably, millipedes recycle carbon and other nutrients in the tropical ecosystem through their feeding activities and gut processes, helping to decompose litter.
These creatures can fragment, consume, and modify litter to accelerate decomposition. They prefer semi-decomposed litters and their efficiency in digesting litter varies with the litter source, weather conditions, temperature, and microbial biomass in the litter. They regulate the cycling of vital nutrients in the soil through feeding and excretion.
When millipedes fragment the litter, nitrogen enters the soil. However, their role in carbon cycling isn’t yet universally understood. Since the fecal matter of millipede decomposes more quickly than the pre-ingested litter, the transformation of litter to feces could accelerate carbon cycling.
Still, other surveys have indicated a relatively low decomposition rate of millipede fecal matter when related to un-ingested litter. This penchant may contribute to soil carbon isolation and stabilization. Similarly, millipedes have a positive effect on the soil phosphorus cycle — they improve the available soil phosphorus content.
Millipedes also interact with other soil creatures, including earthworms, to regulate the abundance of soil microorganisms.
Millipedes as Food
Millipedes are consumed as food in some regions of the world, particularly by the Bobo people of Burkina Faso. The species consumed as food in Burkina Faso include Tymbodesmus falcatus and Sphenodesmus sheribongensis — both flat-backed millipedes (Gomphodesmidae) of the order Polydesmida.
This unusual meat contains significant unsaturated fatty acids, amino acids, calcium, and iron levels. Yet, the defensive chemicals in millipedes, hydrogen cyanide and benzoquinones, pose a challenge for the use of millipedes as a daily food source.
The Bobo people boil millipedes to reduce the cyanide to sub-lethal concentrations. Regardless, sub-lethal cyanide ingestion may help develop innate human resistance to malaria, and benzoquinones may be used as insect repellents.
Dangers of Millipedes
Generally, millipedes aren’t poisonous to humans, but several species produce irritating fluids from specialized glands that may incite allergic reactions in some people. You shouldn’t touch millipedes with your bare hands. Individuals handling millipedes without gloves may notice a lingering odor on their hands.
Occasionally, mainly when they run out of food supply, millipedes may turn to attack living plants. Thus, they’re undesirable in greenhouses since they may attack growing seedlings.
Symptoms of Millipede Irritation
Individuals with allergic reactions may experience the following symptoms after handling a millipede with their bare skin:
1. Pain and Irritation
The liquid secreted by some millipedes comprises acidic elements which may elicit skin irritation. In most allergic episodes, the irritations are restricted to the contact region.
Inflammation may arise from allergic reactions when the body defends itself against infections.
This is among the most common signs people experience when a millipede splashes them with its defensive liquid. This symptom indicates that the body is ready to fight foreign substances.
4. Skin Discoloration
Skin discoloration is a long-term consequence of interacting with a millipede’s defensive fluid. The defensive fluid’s acidic toxins induce skin corrosion, which, in turn, leads to the gradual death of skin cells.
5. Corneal Pain and Conjunctivitis
If a millipede’s defensive fluid splashes into an individual’s eyes, it can induce pain in the cornea. The individual may also experience severe eye irritations, progressing into conjunctivitis — inflammation of the conjunctiva.
Although the defensive fluid isn’t lethal, one must be careful when dealing with millipedes.
Steps to Take After Contact With a Millipede’s Defensive Fluid
If a millipede splashes its irritating fluid at you, take the following measures:
1. Wash with a rich quantity of soap and water
It’s crucial to take this step immediately after contact with millipedes’ fluid. Start by rinsing the affected areas with abundant water. Afterward, introduce a mild soap to wash the affected area thoroughly.
2. Use ice cubes to relieve the pain
You can lessen the pain resulting from the irritation by carefully placing a cube of ice on the affected area. The chilling effect of ice cubes makes you more comfortable.
3. Use papain
This proteolytic enzyme, derived from raw papaya fruit, is beneficial in ridding some irritants present in the defensive fluid. Papain ultimately neutralizes the liquid’s effects through enzymatic breakdown, significantly reducing irritations. Still, papain use shouldn’t stop you from thoroughly cleaning the affected region.
4. Use corticosteroid cream
Corticosteroid cream may be effective against skin reactions resulting from a millipede’s irritating fluid. The substance helps to prevent fungal and bacterial infections of the skin.
5. Cover the affected region with a neat and new bandage
You mustn’t expose your affected skin to other sets of pollutants or irritants. So, it’s essential to protect it with a clean and fresh bandage.
Note: Avoid using ethanol, methylated spirit, alcohol to clean the irritated skin area. Rather, wash the affected area with abundant water and soap.
6. Seek medical assistance if the condition worsens
It’s recommended you seek medical help from a physician if the irritation persists or becomes severe. Still, it’s critical to wash and air-dry the affected area before proceeding to see a doctor.
The doctor will scan you to determine if it’s an allergic reaction. They may administer an adequate dosage of antihistamine to you.
Medical assistance is also valuable if the irritating fluid affects your eyes. Before contacting the consultant, wash your face thoroughly to dilute or exclude the fluid.
Do millipedes eat plants?
Yes, millipedes are saprophytic herbivores that feed on decaying plant matter.
What do millipedes eat as a pet?
Pet millipedes are primarily herbivores, consuming fruits, veggies, and decaying plant materials.
What do giant millipedes eat?
Giant millipedes, such as giant African millipedes and American giant millipedes, feed on rotting plant matters.
Do millipedes eat mushrooms?
Yes, some millipedes eat mushrooms and other fungi.
Do millipedes eat wood?
Yes, millipedes feed on dead and rotting wood.
What do Portuguese millipedes eat?
Portuguese millipedes feed on organic matter, such as leaf litter, decaying wood, and other decomposing plant materials.
Do millipedes eat vegetables?
Yes, millipedes eat vegetables, fruits, and other plant-based foods.
Although not appreciated by many individuals, millipedes are very beneficial to the ecosystem. Their feeding and excretion activities support plant growth and forest formation. However, wear gloves when handling a millipede, if you must.
Summarily, the key to keeping millipedes away from your property or environment involves getting rid of damp and decaying matter, which can serve as home and food to these multi-legged creatures.