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What are those terrifying centipede-like things?

Entomologists estimate there to be around a quintillion individual insects on the planet–and that’s just insects. Bugs are everywhere, but how much do we really know about them? Jeff Lockwood to the rescue! Professor Lockwood is answering all your bug questions–one at a time, that is. Send your question to him care of [email protected] and he’ll do his best to find you the answer.

What are those super-fast, reddish, fuzzy-looking, centipede-like things?

It would sure help hapless entomologists if people would provide just a teensy bit more information when asking, “What is it?” sorts of questions.  Helpful clues include things like: where you live, where you saw it, when you saw it, how big it was, and how many there were.  But never one to shy away from creative and somewhat informed speculation, I’m going to bet that your “super-fast, reddish, fuzzy-looking, centipede-like thing” was — drum roll… — a centipede!  In fact, your description aligns quite well with the ubiquitous house centipede, Scutigera coleoptrata.

Let’s consider your description one term at a time.  “Super-fast” sure fits the house centipede.  The thing runs like greased lighting.  In fact, it can travel 1.3 feet/second.  Given that the creature is between 1 and 2 inches, that speed works out to traveling about 10 body lengths per second.  Figure that a human is 6 feet (that’s my height and I’m a human), so 10 body lengths per second would mean that I’d be running 60 feet per second.  That would be 3,600 feet per minute, or 216,000 feet per hour—or 41 miles per hour.  Usain Bolt (who’s way faster than I am) ran 100 meters in 9.58 seconds which works out to about 23 miles per hour.  So a house centipede would absolutely smoke Usain Bolt in a race if they were the same size (and if we set aside all of those niggling details about biomechanics of small and large organisms).

As for “reddish”, well that’s a bit of a problem.  Most descriptions of the house centipede refer to the little fellow as black, brown, yellow, or ivory.  But brown-yellow isn’t all that far off from “reddish”—and the things move fast so maybe their color was a bit hard to discern.  The centipedes I’ve encountered in the garden are often reddish.  I figure that one person’s brownish is another person’s reddish, so I’m sticking with my identification.

The real problem, or so it would seem, is “fuzzy-looking”.  Centipedes are not hairy at all.  In fact they’re as bald as Yul Brenner or Telly Savalas, which pretty much dates me.  If you don’t know these two classic actors, then imagine Patrick Stewart—the guy who played Captain Jean-Luc Picard on that pale imitation of the great Star Trek series that I knew as a kid.  But I digress.  How can I cram the quality of fuzziness into the glabrous house centipede?  Easy.  The centipede has as many as 15 pairs of incredibly long legs (each leg is nearly as long as the whole body) that appear to surround the body.  So when this beast is skittering across the floor, it creates the distinct impression of being fuzzy.  But the hairiness is really just the spindly legs—or that’s my story, and I’m sticking with it.

And finally, the reason it is “centipede-like” is that it is, well, a centipede.  My identification is further supported by the fact that the house centipede is a very common creature, being found in almost all 50 states from Maine to California.  They like moisture, so I’m thinking you might’ve encountered them either outside in a damp habitat such as under a woodpile or in the compost—or perhaps indoors scampering across the basement or maybe in the bathroom or kitchen.  I’ll further wager that you ran into each other in the fall (when they seek a place to spend the winter) or the spring (when the weather warms up).  And I’ll also bet that you see the little beasts at night, since they are nocturnal predators.

The predator-thing leads me to the question that almost always follows, “What is it?” and that is: “How can I get rid of it?”  You could think of your house centipedes as little, predatory guardians of your homestead.  They eat termites, cockroaches, silverfish, ants, and—get this—bed bugs. Everybody loathes bed bugs, so anything than chomps these insects has to be a household asset, right?  Now it is true that centipedes are venomous, and the house centipede injects its venom through a pair of modified legs (not mandibles—weird, eh?).  But it’s not that hard to maintain some ‘personal space’ between you and your watch-centipedes.  I’ve never heard of anyone being grievously harmed by them, which means that somebody is sure to tell me about their niece who was attacked and nearly lost her foot or something of that sort.  Until then, I’m defending the house centipede as being at the harmless end of the arthropod spectrum (insects have six legs, so centipedes aren’t insects but they are arthropods, along with crabs, lobsters, spiders, scorpions, millipedes, and insects).

Featured Image Credit: ‘House Centipede, Scutigera coleoptrata’, Image by Bruce Marlin, CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

1. […] OUPblog » Blog Archive » What are those terrifying centipede-like … – “Super-fast” sure fits the house centipede. The thing runs like greased lighting. In fact, it can travel 1.3 feet/second. Given that the creature is between 1 and 2 inches, that speed works out to traveling about 10 body lengths per … […]

2. house centipedes? now they i have never seen in my house although i think i saw one under a rock once. Having said that we have about 2 foot long red centipedes here. yes they are long and quite scary!

3. […]   “What are those terrifying centipede-like things?” by Jeffrey […]

4. Tina domenico

I live in apartment a see one and I kill where they come in from?

5. RB

TY for the perfect explanation of this centipede. Up until now I thought they ate dead skin. Now I am a little more aware of just why they showed up. grrrrrrrrrrrr

6. Juanita

Very helpful, thank you. I had to spray one to death with air freshener this morning 😢

7. MarriedToTheDoctor

This is a lovely article I have recommended it to my friends after we were looking at a centipede picture.

8. Ashley

These things completely terrify me!!!!! I just called my boyfriend at work because I couldn’t find the creepy crawler street I saw him skedaddle undermy TV stand. They literally give me the chills. I described it to my boyfriend as a “tall centipede”. He thought it was hilarious and after thinking about it I do too lol but I’m thankful for this article!!

9. Dan Roth

I found what appears to be a form of centipede in my bathroom. I sprayed it and I think that did it in but it took a while. I don’t like bugs so moving it was not for me. Once sprayed it stopped moving. Not positive yet if it died. Sounds terrible, doesn’t it? I am sorry. I can’t live with them or at least know that I am. I itch like crazy after seeing it. I know, I’m nuts but I can’t help it. I don’t mind them living here and doing their thing. I just don’t want to run into them.

10. Donna

I had a visit from a gorgeous black centipede, lighting fast. He was here for 6 days and I didn’t bother him but instead studied him for those days and nights. He fed once during the day and at night he really came to life. Very playful also. I have a small dog that was very interested in him. She had a little play dog and believe it or not the centipede actually played with the toy, knocking it around. It was the coolest thing I have seen in a long time. He finally left the garage 6 days after he got here.

11. Jan

Just saw and sprayed our first centipede with the long legs! It was on the ceiling. Crazy creature!

12. ann white

We call the fuzzy centipedes “Fuzzipedes”

13. Dale L

Thanks for the info. I would like to keep it around but your article made me think about it’s food supply. Makes we wonder how many I would have to have to save all the money I pay the exterminator to control the roaches, silverfish and termites. Yes we have all those here on the Gulf Coast.

14. Laura Alhomsi

I had one get on me twice in two days. I opted to kill it. I had them bad in NJ. I once found a pair that were over 12 “ long. In our drinking water 💦. Our landlord had a garden outside…

15. Eli

I work in an office in a greenhouse. Just saw one of these on the floor. Took pictures with the intent to kill it afterward. Now we are going to let it live since it is supposed to get rid of some of the bugs we dislike more than this one!

16. allison

jeez i saw one of these in my sink and i jumped like a whole 2 feet in the air whale i was making ma pretzel bites and im like dat this is gon eat me

17. […] centipedes. The fastest and best scutigeromorph build is the common house centipede, which can cover 10 times its own body length in just one second. As the name suggests, this build is mostly noted for its tendency to hide in human houses during […]

18. Wendy Seale

Thank you for your article on centipedes. I freaked me out when I saw it running across the wall in the bathroom! Although it is a “good guy” willing to kill the ants and termites etc., I just could not stand the thought of it running around in my house! If it would stay hidden in the walls, I could live with it.

19. Kimberly

Very helpful and informative. I enjoy your writing flow! I will let them stay – at a distance.