Animal Spotlight: Millipedes

What You Need to Know About Thousand Leggers

While ZooAmerica only exhibits animals native to North America, some of them may be too small to be presented. For this reason, our education department has more flexibility with the species it uses, which includes millipedes. 

There are often similar species that live in other parts of the world, almost the same as our native species, but larger. The ZooAmerica education department uses exotic species like European Legless Lizards, Vietnamese Walking Sticks, Chilean Rose-Haired Tarantulas, Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches, and Giant African Millipedes.

In fact, fourteen Giant African Millipedes arrived at ZooAmerica at the end of February from Akron Zoo. They range in length from 1 inch to 9 inches! Millipedes native to Pennsylvania can grow to be 4 inches long but are typically only about 1 inch in length. They are also much thinner than Giant African Millipedes, making them very hard to present to the public during educational programs.

Why are millipedes important?

Based on fossil records, millipedes are among the oldest terrestrial invertebrates and are found in many habitats worldwide. They are decomposers, meaning they help break down organic material and recycle the nutrients back into the soil. Decomposers are like a clean-up crew that gets rid of waste and provides resources for other plants and animals.

What is the difference between a millipede and a centipede?

Millipedes and centipedes come in various sizes, shapes and colors. There are about 3,000 known species of centipedes and about 7,000 known species of millipedes, 1,400 of which are found in North America.

One difference between a millipede and a centipede is their preferred diet. Millipedes are herbivores because they like to eat decaying plant material. Centipedes are carnivores because they mainly eat insects. Centipedes are venomous, using a toxin to kill their prey. 

Another difference is the number of legs they have per body segment. Millipedes have two sets of legs per segment, while centipedes only have one set of legs per segment.

Where can you see millipedes?

The Giant African Millipedes that reside at ZooAmerica are not on display to the public. Guests can only see them during scheduled programs and special events. As a member, you may have noticed the large amounts of wild millipedes that gather in the late spring between our Great Southwest building and the otter habitat. These millipedes love damp dirt and a lot of shade, which this zoo area provides to them. Watch how their legs move when they walk if you get the chance! They use a metachronal gait, making their legs look like they move in a wave from the back to the front. 

Also, watch your step so that we can protect these wild millipedes in the zoo and keep our soil healthy!