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Acari (mites)
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Chilopoda (centipedes)
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Diplopoda (millipedes)
Isopoda (slaters)
Insecta (insects)
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Oligochaeta (earthworms)
Onychophora (peripatus)
Opiliones (harvestmen)
Turbellaria (flatworms)


Dr. Maria Minor
Wildlife & Ecology Group
Massey University
Palmerston North
New Zealand

+64-06-356-9099 ext.84833

New Zealand Terrestrial & Freshwater Biodiversity Information System (TFBIS). Find out more...


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Cryptops sp., a common New Zealand centipede.

Common name: centipedes, Maori weri.

Scientific name: phylum Arthropoda, class Chilopoda. From Greek “cheilos”, lip, and “poda”, legs (referring to the jaw-like appendages).


Chilopoda, or centipedes, can be recognized easily by their elongate, flattened multi-segmented body, many legs, and wriggling running gait. The centipedes are commonly 2-5 cm in size, although some tropical forms reach over 20 cm.

Each segment of the body bears a single pair of walking legs; the total number of segments and pairs of legs can vary from fifteen to more than a 100. The segments of the body are covered with lightly sclerotized, leathery plates, connected to one another by the soft pliable cuticle. The last legs differ in structure and function; often they are modified as genital appendages (gonopodes).

Head of Lithobius sp.

The head is flattened dorso-ventrally and bears a pair of long antennae. Centipedes have either a large single ocellus, or more often a group of ocelli on each side of the head. Only few centipedes posess compound eyes. Many centipedes lack eyes entirely.

The remarkable and unique feature of centipedes are the large, robust, pincer-like appendages of the first segment following the head – the forcipules, also known as maxillipedes, or poison-claws. The forcipules are modified legs, which function as jaws; they are jointed, open and close in horizontal plane, and end in sharp claws. The centipedes use forcipules to capture and poison their prey. The ducts of poison glands open near the tips of the claws. The forcipules are found in all Chilopoda and occur in no other arthropods.

The centipedes are classified into five orders – Geophilomorpha, Scolopendromorpha, Lithobiomorpha, Scutigeromorpha and Craterostigmomorpha.

Zelanion sp., a geophilomorph centipede.

Order Geophilomorpha

Geophilomorphs are adapted for underground existence – these are slow moving, long, thin, entirely eyeless centipedes with very numerous short legs. The body length varies from less than 1 cm to over 25 cm, with 31 to 181 (always odd number) pairs of legs. Colour in different species ranges from reddish-brown to very pale yellow. Geophilomorpha are morphologically and biologically the most diverse centipedes, and are related to the Scolopendromorpha.


Order Scolopendromorpha

Cormocephalus sp. from Taranaki region.

The Scolopendromorpha include the world’s largest centipedes, with some tropical forms reaching over 25 cm in length. Native to New Zealand, the giant scolopendromorph centipede Cormocephalus rubriceps can reach over 16 cm in length, although most other New Zealand Scolopendromorpha, especially soil dwellers, are much smaller and do not exceed 5 cm. Scolopendromorpha always have twenty-one pair of legs. Many are blind, but some have simple eyes (ocelli).

Order Scutigeromorpha

Due to their striking spider-like appearance, Scutigeromorpha are unlikely to be confused with other centipedes. Scutigeromorpha are active sight hunters, with large compound eyes, relatively short body, long, whip-like antennae, and very long legs, making them amazingly fast and agile. The dorsal plates (tergites) are fused to form seven larger plates; there are 15 ventral plates and 15 pairs of legs. The House Centipede Scutigera is greyish-yellow with dark stripes along the 2.5-3 cm body and can be seen in and around houses in Auckland City and sometimes gets trapped in sinks and bathtubs.

Henicops maculatus, a native New Zealand Lithobiomorpha.

Order Lithobiomorpha

The Lithobiomorpha are shorter and more compact centipedes and are very active. Adult Lithobiomorpha range in size from 0.5 cm to over 3 cm, and have 15 pairs of legs. Most possess ocelli, either one or a group of several, although there are some blind species. The most familiar, active brown or reddish centipedes common around human habitations in New Zealand are Lithobiomorpha.

Occasionally one finds beautiful violet individuals – these are freshly moulted Lithobius centipedes, which become reddish-purple when hardened.

Order Craterostigmomorpha

Craterostigmus crabilli from New Zealand.

The centipede Craterostigmus is a unique animal with a very restricted distribution, and has been placed in a separate order Craterostigmomorpha. Craterostigmus tasmanianus from Tasmania and the recently described Craterostigmus crabilli from New Zealand are the only species in the order. The New Zealand Craterostigmus is a medium-sized (up to 5 cm), greenish-brown centipede, with a large, elongate, red-brown head. The forcipules are massive and clearly visible from above, framing the head. The adult Craterostigmus have 15 pairs of legs but 21 tergites, as some tergites are subdivided. There is one pair of ocelli. Little is known about the biology of this centipede in New Zealand, although it is not uncommon.

Notes on biology

Lithobius sp., a common garden centerpede.

All centipedes are predators, able to tackle relatively large and active prey, grasping and paralysing their victims with their poison-claws. Centipedes attack a large variety of invertebrate prey – other soil arthropods, earthworms, molluscs, etc. Large tropical Scolopendromorpha even prey on vertebrates – frogs and birds. In turn, many centipedes are preyed upon by birds and mammals. In New Zealand, introduced rats have reduced the numbers of the giant centipede Cormocephalus rubriceps. Predatory ground beetles and large spiders may also hunt centipedes, particularly the juveniles.

Centipedes have separate sexes, although males are absent in some parthenogenetic species. The male produces spermatophores and deposit them into a specially constructed web, from where they are picked up by the female. Fertilization is internal. Two types of brooding behaviour and development exist in centipedes. In Geophilomorpha and Scolopendromorpha, the female lays an egg mass in a cavity excavated in the soil. The female remains in the cavity coiled around the eggs until they have hatched. The newborn centipedes resemble miniature adults and have the adult number of legs, although the reproductive parts are not developed. Growth and development is through a series of moults. In Lithobiomorpha and Scutigeromorpha, the female lays the eggs one by one, and abandons them. The newborn centipedes have incomplete numbers of segments and legs; more segments and legs are progressively added with each moult until they reach the adult number. The stadia with incomplete number of legs are known as larvae. There are four larval stages, and four more post-larval moults until maturity is reached.

Each stage of development lasts for several months, and in cold climates a centipede can take 2-3 years to reach maturity. Adult centipedes continue to moult, further increasing in size. Many die after their first breeding season, but many continue to live and moult for several more years.

Centipedes are able to regenerate lost appendages – the regenerating appendage slowly develops with each consequent moult, although a perfect appendage is regenerated only if the injury had occurred at an early stage in development; otherwise the regenerated appendage is deformed and stunted.

Cryptops in a rotting log.

Where to find them?

As with many other soil animals, centipedes lose water through the cuticle and dehydrate easily, which restricts them to relatively humid surroundings. All centipedes avoid daylight. Centipedes are found under stones, beneath loose tree bark, between the layers of decaying leaves on the forest floor, in soil and rotting logs, and in other similar situations. Around human habitations, centipedes are often encountered in compost heaps, under outdoor rubbish, among garden debris, under tiles, etc. Most species show preference for a particular habitat – there are species that exploit logs, various soil and humus layers, even piles of seaweed at the beaches.

Different adaptations and habits are found in different groups of centipedes. The blind Geophilomorpha, with their long, narrow, flexible bodies and numerous short legs are burrowers and exploiters of small crevices. Geophilomorphs are common under the bark of fallen trees, in decayed timber, and in soil. The Lithobiomorpha, with their relative lack of flexibility, compact form, speedy movement and ocelli, occupy more superficial microhabitats. Scolopendromopha are intermediate in their microhabitat preferences.

Miniature centipedes – small Lithobiomorpha, Geophilomorpha, larval stages – are a common part of Berlese extractions. Larger centipedes are not collected by Berlese funnels, nor are they well represented in pitfall traps. Large centipedes can be collected directly, with fingers or forceps, although large, active Lithobiomorpha and Scolopendromorpha often move very rapidly and are not easy to grasp or photograph. Most centipedes are harmless, but the larger specimens can protect themselves and may pinch the skin, which can be quite unpleasant. Large Scolopendromorpha are capable of inflicting a very painful bite and may be dangerous to sensitive individuals or small children. A useful capture method is to grab a handful of substrate containing the centipede, and place it in a plastic bag or a container, which can be examined in the lab. If centipedes are kept live, each one should be kept in its own separate container, as they may damage and even eat each other. Centipedes can be preserved in 70% alcohol.

Distribution and conservation

Worldwide, there are currently around 3,000 described species of centipedes. There are still many undescribed species, and the distribution of described species is not well understood. Scolopendromorpha (~ 600 species) and Scutigeromorpha (80 species) are distributed mainly in the tropics, although scolopendromorphs are common in New Zealand. Geophilomorpha (>1,100 species) are found nearly worldwide. Lithobiomorpha (~ 1,500 species) are well represented in temperate regions of both the northern and southern hemispheres, but rare and poorly represented in the tropical regions. The relict Craterostigmomorpha are restricted to Tasmania and New Zealand. Centipede fauna of New Zealand is distinctly southern (Gondwanan) in type and includes at least 35 species; several genera are endemic.

New Zealand centipedes are abundant in all habitats from sea level to high elevations. They are most common in woodlands, but are also found in open country and around farms and houses. The unique Craterostigmus occurs in forest habitats of the South Island, where it is quite common.

Similar to other soil animals, centipedes are subjects to human dispersion with soil and plant materials. The introduced Lithobius peregrinus (Lithobiomorpha) is a common centipede in New Zealand gardens. The European House Centipede Scutigera coleoptrata (Scutigeromorpha) has been introduced and has established in New Zealand. At the same time, native centipedes are threatened by habitat destruction. Introduced mammals, such as rats and mice, present a significant threat to larger species. New Zealand’s largest native centipede, the giant Cormocephalus rubriceps is up to 20 cm in length and occurs throughout the North Island and nearby islands, particularly in the north. Due to rat predation, full-sized individuals are now found only on rat-free islands, as the mainland centipedes fall victim to predators before they reach the maximum size.

Included images:

Order Scolopendromorpha
Family Scolopendridae
Cormocephhalus rubiceps - Ohinetonga, TO, North Island
Family Cryptopidae
Cryptos sp. - Nelson, NN, South Island
Cryptos sp. - Craigieburn Forest Park, Cave Stream, NC, South Island (3 images)
Unidentified species - Takapari Road, southern Ruahine Ranges, RI/WN, North Island
Order Craterostigmomorpha
Family Craterostigmidae
Craterostigmus crabilli Edgecombe & Giribet, 2008 - Kahurangi National Park, Flora Saddle, NN, South Island (2 images)
Order Geophilomorpha
Family Chilenophilidae
Zelanion sp. - Rimu Valley Walk, NN, South Island (2 images)
Unidentified species - Canaan Road, NN, South Island
Order Lithobiomorpha
Family Henicopidae
Henicops maculatus (Newport, 1845) - Rimu Valley Walk, SD, South Island (2 images)
Family Lithobiidae
Lithobius forficulatus* - Palmerston North, WI, North Island (2 images)
Lithobius sp.* - Nelson, NN, South Island
Unidentified species - Trounson Kauri Park, Northland, ND, North Island
* - species exotic in NZ

Further information on New Zealand Chilopoda:

Archey, G. 1936. Revision of the Chilopoda of New Zealand part 1. Records of Auckland Institute and Museum 2(1), p. 43-70.

Archey, G. 1937. Revision of the Chilopoda of New Zealand part 2. Records of Auckland Institute and Museum 2(2), p. 71-100.

Bennet, B.G. 1981. Notes on the giant New Zealand centipede, Cormocephalus rubriceps. Weta 4, p. 6.

Edgecombe, G.D. 2004. The henicopid centipede Haasiella (Chilopoda: Lithobiomorpha): new species from Australia, with a morphology-based phylogeny of Henicopidae. Journal of Natural History 38, p. 37-76.

Edgecombe, G.D. 2004. A new species of Paralamyctes (Chilopoda: Lithobiomorpha) from New Zealand. Zootaxa 451, p. 1-16.

Lewis, J.G.E. 1981. The Biology of Centipedes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 476 pp.

Mesibov, R. 1995. Distribution and ecology of the centipede Craterostigmus tasmanianus Pocock, 1902 (Chilopoda: Craterostigmomorpha: Craterostigmidae) in Tasmania. The Tasmanian Naturalist 117, p. 2-7.

Chilopoda Resources on the Web

Centipede - Wikipedia.

CSIRO Insects and their Allies, Chilopoda - centipedes.

ID tools - Chilopoda

Gordon's centipedes page

Kentucky Centipedes

Tree of Life Web Project - Chilopoda

Browse our

NZ Centipedes

Links and Resources:

Centipede - Wikipedia

CSIRO Insects and their Allies: Chilopoda - centipedes

ID tools - Chilopoda

Gordon's centipedes page

Kentucky Centipedes

Tree of Life Web Project - Chilopoda

Click here to contact me if any of these links are broken


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