North America’s largest centipede

As I prowled the remote mixed-grass prairie of northwestern Oklahoma in the middle of the night, an enormous, serpentine figure emerged frenetically from a clump of grass and clambered up the banks of the draw I was exploring.  Although I was still hoping for my first glimpse of the Great Plains giant tiger beetle, I was keeping a watchful eye out for anything that moved within the illuminated tunnel of my headlamp due to the potential for encountering prairie rattlesnakes (perhaps the most aggressive of North America’s species).  This was clearly no snake, but at up to 8″, Scolopendra heros (giant desert centipede) easily matches some smaller snakes in length.  Also called the giant Sonoran centipede and the giant North American centipede, it is North America’s largest representative of this class of arthropods (although consider its South American relative, S. gigantea – the Peruvian or Amazonian giant centipede, whose lengths of up to 12″ make it the largest centipede in the world).

Although I had never before seen this species alive, I recognized it instantly for what it was.  Many years ago I was scouting the extreme southwest corner of Missouri for stands of soapberry (Sapindus saponaria), a small tree that just sneaks inside Missouri at the northeasternmost limit of its distribution, in hopes of finding dead branches that might be infested with jewel beetles normally found in Texas.  I had heard that these centipedes also reach their northeastern extent in southwestern Missouri, and just a few miles from the Arkansas and Oklahoma borders I found a road-killed specimen.  I stood there dejected looking at it – too flattened to even try to salvage for the record.

Centipedes, of course, comprise the class Chilopoda, which is divided into four orders.  The giant centipedes (21 species native to North America) are placed in the order Scolopendromorpha, distinguished by having 21 or 23 pairs of legs and (usually) four small, individual ocelli on each side of the head (best seen in bottom photo).  The three other orders of centipedes either lack eyes (Geophilomorpha) or possess compound eyes (Scutigeromorpha and Lithobiomorpha).  These latter two orders also have only 15 pairs of legs (shouldn’t they thus be called “quindecipedes”?).  Among the scolopendromorphs, S. heros is easily distinguished by its very large size and distinctive coloration.  This coloration varies greatly across its range, resulting in the designation of three (likely taxonomically meaningless) subspecies.  This individual would be considered S. h. castaneiceps (red-headed centipede) due to its black trunk with the head and first few trunk segments red and the legs yellow.  As we have noted before, such striking coloration of black and yellow or red nearly always indicates an aposematic or warning function for a species possessing effective antipredatory capabilities – in this case a toxic and very painful bite.

The individual in these photographs is not the first one I saw that night, but the second.  I had no container on hand to hold the first one and not even any forceps with which to handle it – I had to watch in frustration as it clambered up the side of the draw and disappear into the darkness of the night.  Only after I returned to the truck to retrieve a small, plastic terrarium (to fill with dirt for the giant tiger beetles that I now possessed) did I luck into seeing a second individual, which I coaxed carefully into the container.  It almost escaped me yet again – I left the container on the kitchen table when I returned home, only to find the container knocked onto the floor the next morning and the lid askew.  I figured the centipede was long gone and hoped that whichever of our three cats that knocked the container off the table didn’t experience its painful bite.  That evening, I noticed all three cats sitting in a semi-circle, staring at a paper shredder kept up against the wall in the kitchen.  I knew immediately what had so captured their interest and peeked behind the shredder to see the centipede pressed up against the wall. The centipede had lost one of its terminal legs but seemed otherwise none the worse for wear – its terrarium now sits safely in my cat-free office, and every few days it enjoys a nice, fat Manduca larva for lunch.

There are a number of online “fact sheets” on this species, mostly regarding care in captivity for this uncommon but desirable species.  I highly recommend this one by Jeffrey K. Barnes of the University of Arkansas for its comprehensiveness and science-focus.

Photo Details: Canon 50D (ISO 100, 1/250 sec) w/ Canon MT-24EX flash in white box.
Photos 1-2: Canon 100mm macro lens (f22), indirect flash.
Photo 3: Canon MP-E 65mm 1-5X macro lens (f/13), direct flash w/ Sto-Fen + GFPuffer diffusers.
Post-processing: levels, minor cropping, unsharp mask.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2010

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About Ted C. MacRae

Ted C. MacRae is a research entomologist by vocation and beetle taxonomist by avocation. Areas of expertise in the latter include worldwide jewel beetles (Buprestidae) and North American longhorned beetles (Cerambycidae). More recent work has focused on North American tiger beetles (Cicindelidae) and their distribution, ecology, and conservation.
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50 Responses to North America’s largest centipede

  1. Kurt says:

    Beautiful shots of this magnificent critter and great info of it too :)

  2. Wow! Very impressive. Did he slow down at all? The little stone centipede I photographed last year was in constant motion in the white box, making it a very difficult target indeed. What does this size centipede prey on in the wild?

    • I found that if I put a large glass dish over the centipede and left it for awhile, it eventually settled down and then stayed put while I carefully lifted the dish.

      In the wild I suspect they probably eat a lot of crickets and grasshoppers.

  3. DougT says:

    Great photo! I see these regularly in southeast Arizona. They are popular for use in live displays.

    • I can’t believe in all the times I’ve been to Arizona for collecting (’87, ’91, ’98) I’ve never run into one of these things. Their popularity for live displays is certainly understandable – creepy-beautiful and very easy to keep.

  4. OMG that centipede is so awesome! I love its coloration, but I love its size even more. NEVER have I seen a centipede so large. Stunning photos – boy, Ted, you’ve really got that macro photography down!

    Maybe I’m super-impressed with size because I live in Texas?

    • Thanks, Amber. I wouldn’t say that I’ve got the macro thing down, but I’m learning. In fact, I’ve got a followup in the works with direct comparisons of different lens and lighting methods – you should find it interesting.

  5. Bryan Hughes says:

    I’ve seen many heros while looking for snakes in Arizona, and see a good amount of S. heros arizonensis. I’m into the herpetology more than the entomology, but these still require some attention!

    What is the ssp. called that has this coloration? All I’ve seen is arizonensis, which is red with a black head.

    • Hi Bryan – the black with red heads form is called castaneiceps, which covers the greatest part of the species range.

      btw – very nice herper’s website you’ve got. Link and RSS feed added.

      • Bryan Hughes says:

        Thanks for the info. Inverts are on that fringe of my interest that keeps growing over time … probably the same way most entomologists are with snakes! haha. Thanks again, and likewise added to my list.

        • You’re welcome. Yes, indeed – I’ve had a growing interest in herps (esp. snakes) over the past couple of years, probably a result of me actually finding some pretty cool ones.

          Still, I’m glad I didn’t run into any prairie rattlers that night! I ran into a mess of them in the Black Hills one time – I got some great photos of the first one, but the second encounter was a tad too close for comfort and had me tip-toeing out of there in short order.

          • Bryan Hughes says:

            That’s just cool. I will hopefully be in Colorado next Spring to set up a lawn chair and spend a few days at a C. viridis den … they do it in larger masses than down here in AZ.

            Also, if you’re interested in info on finding S. h. arizonensis in AZ if you ever come down, let me know and I can give you a couple of good locations.

            • I’ve been wanting to get back out to AZ for awhile now. I’ll certainly drop you a note when I’m ready to go out there – there might be lots of other good “bugs” for me to find at whatever locations you can recommend.

  6. James C. Trager says:

    What a gorgeous and formidable critter, Ted!

  7. Kory Roberts says:

    Very nice find and beautiful pictures. We come across these on occasion in AR while looking for snakes.

    Here are some things I know from personal experience:

    1) Their bite is for real! A friend of mine was bitten on the knuckle of his middle finger and his arm swelled up to the elbow.

    2) They seem to NEVER STOP MOVING when you want to take their picture.

    3) They easily chew out of Ziploc bags.

    4) They will devour frozen/thawed mice of appropriate size.

    I’ve tried twice to keep one in captivity, but failed both times. Although we typically find them in what one would consider dry, rocky habitats I think access to water at all times is vitally important to keeping them happy in captivity. (Pretty sure both of mine dessicated.)

    • Thank you, Kory. I’ve heard more than a few stories about how painful the bite is – sometimes these things get exaggerated, but in the case of these animals the reputation seems quite deserved.

      See my tip to Adrian on how to get these guys to pose nicely for pictures. I tried for several weeks to take some photos and just never got close to something I was happy with. I came up with the glass dish idea originally for another white-box subject (that I haven’t yet posted on) and then saw the centipede container sitting on the bench and thought, “Ah-ha!”

      I’m sure water and preventing desiccation are paramount for keeping them in captivity. I placed a cotton-filled dish in the terrarium and keep it saturated with water, but probably if they are fed often enough they will get the water they need from their food. I’ve had mine for 2 months now.

      p.s. – Herps of Arkansas is a great site!

  8. Dave says:

    Great shots of a striking animal. I used to have a Scolopendra of similar size (but less colourful) in Queensland that I used as a demo for Entomology and Invertebrate Zoology labs. The students (and I) were always impressed by how fast and supple the centipede was – nothing stilted or robotic in the movement of this arthropod – and also how fast it would strike and devoured a large cockie (or you might call them palmetto bugs – Periplaneta americana). The Australian Scolopendra also have some spectacular mites in the genus Discozercon: they may be present on your animal too (I know of records from Arizona). Alas, no wild Scolopendra in Alberta (but no synanthropic cockroaches either).

    • Where would I look for the mites? I haven’t noticed anything as obvious as those on my hissers (Gromphadorina portentosa).

      This thing almost gives me the willies to handle – even with long forceps, it moves with such rapidity it seems like I’m always just barely keeping it under control. The first time I put a caterpillar in the cage, it hadn’t fed for several days – the strike was quite forceful and deliberate.

      Alas, no wild Scolopendra in Alberta (but no synanthropic cockroaches either).

      You take the good with the bad :)

  9. zack says:

    Gorgeous photographs, Ted! Its amazing to see a centipede frozen in time, as they are such fast moving creatures.

    • Thank you, zack. I would prefer to have gotten photos like these out in the field (don’t know what it is about me and my desire to photograph things in their native haunts). One thing I will say about the white box environment is that it really does highlight the beauty of the creature.

  10. jason says:

    Awesome photos! These guys are so cool. They used to be uncommon here around Dallas, but they’ve been increasing their numbers recently. It’s gotten much easier to find them in and around the city, though they’re still more common to the south. At least for now.

    So glad you had a second chance to grab one, Ted! And I laughed about the cat story. One joy of having cats is that they’ll always let you know where to find the critters.

    • Thanks, Jason. Lucky you with the opportunity to see these things regularly.

      I figured you’d appreciate the full humor of the cat story. It’s almost comical the way they sit together and stare at something when there’s a critter hidden behind it – something I’ve gotten to witness over and over since childhood.

  11. Sandy says:

    Oh, I remember them from when I lived in Oklahoma. We would see them indoors as well as out. Can’t believe four little kids managed to walk around barefoot for years and never get stung.

    Great photography, but I would never get that close!

    • Hi Sandy – you probably never got bit because, for all their ferociousness as predators and in appearance, they really are secretive animals that would much rather avoid conflict. The coloration is a warning for potential predators to leave them alone, and given the choice when threatened they will try to flee – only when handled do they resort to biting. I had nothing to fear while taking these photographs (other than it suddenly bolting and escaping the confines of the white box :)).

  12. Ted, what fantastic fotos! A real movie opening your site.

  13. Pingback: Arthropod Roundup: Ant genomes, desert centipedes, coconut crabs, and tiger moths « Arthropoda

  14. Joy K. says:

    Great pictures! The color is amazing.

    One of my students brought me one of these 2 years ago, but I wasn’t in my room, so he left the jar sitting on my desk. I didn’t see it amidst the clutter at first. I caught its movement in my peripheral vision while I was typing, and thought I was going to have a stroke when I saw its gigantic self sitting there, before I realized it was imprisoned.

  15. Merry Urabe says:

    This is very fascinating, You’re an overly skilled blogger. I’ve joined your feed and look forward to in the hunt for more of your excellent post. Additionally, I’ve shared your website in my social networks!

  16. Say if your interested, come to Santa Anna, Texas. we found a bunch of these at the motel on the mountain, have extermitated them, but sure all were not gotten, you may find more than this, also cougers pass through as well as other critters,

  17. Jennifer norris says:

    Hi i just read your article and was letting you know we found one of these same types in north east oklahoma crawling across our drive way i do have a picture if interested

  18. Em says:


    Looks a lot like a Japanese Tobizu-Mukade.

    I have been loving on centipedes for the past few days outta nowhere and then one (a little brown one lethi-so-and-so) showed up in my hallway and made friends. Not sure where my sudden love for these creatures came from but they deserve it!


  19. Ann says:

    My husband works for an oklahoma pest control company, and out on a call he came across one of these centipedes, and I thought I would look it up to see what type of centipede it is, and yes it’s alive sitting in a tightly sealed container in front of me. It doesn’t look to happy either! Being I don’t like the looks of it I still have enough heart to have my husband find a safe place far from my home to let it go.

    • I hope your husband does let it go outside – they are not pests and have their place in nature. Any centipede of this type that happens to be found in a home is there by accident and wants to get out just as badly as the homeowner wants them out.

  20. Brooke Carr says:

    I have lived in SW Missouri for 30 yrs, in a very rural area, close to Table Rock Lake. Until this week I didn’t even know this species even existed. In the past week I have had the pleasure of meeting not one, but two of these prehistoric-looking fellas. I took a job at a resort which sits bluff-side on the lakes main channel. Upon walking into the resort’s restaurant for work one morning last week I was greeted by the one of these, scurrying across the floor from behind the bar. Now Im not scared by much, but I did a dance that any sissy would be proud of.We managed to remove it via dustpan & broom. The second found its way into the kitchen two days ago. Our chef did a similar dance…The first was easily an inch across(not counting legs) and at least 8 inches long, the second, only slightly smaller. From what I’ve gathered they are seen often on the resort… If anyone is interested in a live specimen, email

    • I’ve not heard of these invading homes, as in Missouri they are fairly restricted to the dry, rocky dolomite glades that dot the hilltops in your part of the state. Does the resort have this type of habitat nearby? I’d love to get a live one if you can manage it.

  21. When I lived in TX, in 1999 I worked in a nursing home. One of the CNA’s opened a closet and a outrageously large centipede fell from the shelf. She came screaming to the nurses station that there was a huge bug in the hall. I looked down there and it appeared about the size of a small dog. I got a broom, and pushed it out the door into a garden area. This monster was about 2 feet long and about nearly a foot tall. He has antennas the size of fingers. He had a brown body and yellow legs. I had never seen anything like it before or since.

  22. Mark Hungerford says:

    TED, did you ever get yourself a live one? I live in Hinton Oklahoma and have seen an over abundance of them this year! The last one was last night, and it was 6+ inches maybe 7 at best long,my daughter-inlaw dispatched him with a brick, but kept him on the picnic table for me to look at today. It was quite the specimen most of the ones I’ve seen this summer where brown/black, ( of course yellow legs and orange head) , but this fella was a dark green color! I would be happy to catch the next one I find, and send it to you. I’d even pack it a lunch!
    Hinton has lots of sand and sandstone, pretty dry for the most part, and we have had a grasshopper bloom this year, so they are well fed this year ! Nice photography, and Ivan say that with authority, as I’ve been in the pictur biz since about 1968 . ( I am still fighting digital) ! Film is where it at!
    Mark E.Hungerford.

    • Too bad your daughter-in-law dispatched him without a trial :)

      I kept the one I photographed for a few months before it finally died. I don’t think they live all that long anyway – captivity wasn’t a problem since I had an endless supply of food to give him.

      Thanks for your remarks about my photography, although I’ll note that 2010 when I took those photos was only my 2nd year doing it – I’ve learned a lot since then and would love to get another crack at photographing one of these things now.


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