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Africa Geographic Travel
©Christian Boix

Millipedes of all shapes and sizes are a common sight in Africa, particular after rain, when they are seen marching around in search of decaying plant matter to eat.  Some are HUGE – easily the size of your hand, and many have brightly coloured bodies and legs – possibly to scare off predators.

We rounded up ten interesting facts about these beautiful creatures:

• The indigenous people of southern Africa call the millipede ‘shongololo’, which is derived from from the Xhosa and Zulu word ‘ukushonga’, meaning to roll up…

• The name “millipede” is derived from Latin, meaning “thousand feet”. However, no known species has that many legs, and the record for the most legs on a millipede species belongs to Illacme plenipes, who has 750 feet.

• There are about 12,000 described species of millipedes!

• Their primary defence mechanism is to release a foul-smelling toxin, which is made up of hydrochloric acid (which burns) and hydrogen cyanide (which asphyxiates). This keeps most predators at bay, except for shrews and civets, which appear to be immune to these toxins. Millipedes also curl up into a tight ball when threatened, to protect their soft underparts.

©Simon Espley

• When disturbed, millipedes escape predation by moving away in a slithering, snake-like motion, which may scare off some predators.

• Hornbills have been observed using crushed millipedes to line their cavity nests in trees – possibly to avoid mite and other infestations. Some primates have been observed intentionally disturbing millipedes to obtain the foul-smelling toxins which they rub onto their bodies, also as a repellent.

• Millipedes are some of the oldest land animals on Earth. The first known millipede, Pneumodesmus newmani, was only 1 cm long and appeared during the Paleozoic era, 252-541 million years ago. This is the oldest known creature to have lived on land, and was discovered in 2004 from a single specimen in Scotland.

• Some extinct prehistoric millipedes (Arthropleura spp.) grew up to 2 metres in length!

• The longest living millipede is the giant African millipede (Archispirostreptus gigas), reaching a length of up to 38.5 cm.

• It is thought that the bright body and leg colours of some millipedes is to warn off or repel predators.

©White Elephant Safari Lodge
©Sally Robinson

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