Taken literally, the name centipede means "one hundred feet." While they do have a lot of legs, this is really a misnomer. Centipedes can have anywhere from 30 to over 300 legs, depending on the species.
Centipedes belong to the phylum Arthropoda, and share all the characteristic arthropod traits with their cousins, the insects and spiders. But beyond that, centipedes are in a class by themselves – the class Chilopoda.
Centipede legs extend visibly from the body, with the final pairs of legs trailing behind it. This allows them to run quite fast, either in pursuit of prey or in flight from predators. Centipedes have just one pair of legs per body segment, a key distinction from millipedes.
The centipede body is long and flattened, with a long pair of antennae protruding from the head. A modified pair of front legs functions as fangs, used to inject venom and immobilize prey.
Centipedes prey on insects and other small animals. Some species also scavenge on dead or decaying plants or animals. Giant centipedes, which inhabit South America, feed on much larger animals, including mice, frogs, and even snakes.
While house centipedes may be creepy to find in the home, you might want to think twice about harming them. House centipedes feed on insects, including the egg cases of cockroaches.
Centipedes may live for as long as six years. In tropical environments, centipede reproduction usually continues year round. In seasonal climates, centipedes overwinter as adults and reemerge from their sheltered hideaways in spring.
Centipedes undergo an incomplete metamorphosis, with three life stages. In most centipede species, females lay their eggs in soil or other damp organic matter. The nymphs hatch, and go through a progressive series of molts until they reach adulthood. In many species, young nymphs have fewer pairs of legs than their parents. With each molt, the nymphs gain more pairs of legs.
Special Adaptations and Defenses:
When threatened, centipedes use a number of different strategies to defend themselves. Large, tropical centipedes don't hesitate to attack, and can inflict a painful bite. Stone centipedes use their long hind legs to throw a sticky substance at their attackers. The centipedes that live in soil don't usually try to retaliate; instead, they curl themselves into a ball to protect themselves. House centipedes choose flight over fight, skittering quickly out of harm's way.