By Emma-Louise Nicholls, on 8 July 2013
Nine blogs away from the big 1-0-0! Woooo! Not yet though, I, and you, must at least attempt to contain our excitement. This won’t help though- In the run up to the 100th blog I am going to bring to you the top ten specimens at the Grant Museum, as voted for by…. me. I have employed strict criteria with which to segregate the top ten from the other 67,990 specimens that we have in our care…
1) It must not be on permanent display, giving you a little behind-the-scenes magic, if you will, as the specimen will then go on display for the week of which it has been named ‘Specimen’. Oh yes. That’s almost as good as our exhibition It Came From The Stores. Almost.
2) It must have at some point in the past made me say ‘woooo’ out loud (given my childlike disposition for expressing wonderment at the world at large, this is not necessarily a hard qualification for the specimen to achieve)
3) I must know (at least in a vague sort of a way) what species the specimen is, as SotW is researched and written within a strict one hour time frame.
With that in mind, at Number Ten, this week’s Specimen of the Week is…
1) This species is a-MAZ-ing. It is a centipede the length of a BUS. Yes. Well, a toy bus. But a twelve inch long toy bus, and that’s still impressive. It’s name is Scolopendra gigantea, they have large brains, venom with a serious level of toxicity, and huge jaws. Be afraid. Be very afraid. Though probably only if you inhabit tropical or subtropical forests in northern South America. Though if you do, you’d probably have a lot of other species to worry about first. But just in case, you’d want to avoid leaf litter and rotten wood, aka their favourites venues.
2) Scolopendra, has a similar body plan to other, lesser (objective not taxonomically hierarchical fact), species of centipede. The body is flattened and divided into between 21 and 23 segments, each of which has a pair of legs sprouting from it. The first set of legs are the ones you want to avoid on Scolopendra. They are modified into, well, fangs. These fangs, called (less dramatically) maxillipeds, inject the venom from the poison glands. Scolopendra’s poison is strong enough to seriously wound a human. The rear leg pair are also modified and resemble the antennae making the rear end look suspiciously like the head. In my hour of research and writing I could not find a reference to say that centipede’s use a fake head as protection from predators, like the thorny devil does, for example, but if it turns out to be both true and new to science- you read it here first ok? There is however reference to them being able to use their rear pair of modified legs as sensors, just like the antennae.
3) Our specimen has not been on a scientific mission to space, did not get blasted by cosmic radiation, and did not subsequently gaining the power of invisibility. It has, in fact, been dissected and the internal organs removed. You can see the ‘fangs’ still though, the tips of which are sharp and black. Scolopendra uses these impressive maxillipeds to catch and feed on things such as snails, crickets, lizards, toads, and rodents. On the basis their prime diet comprises many species that humans class as pests, gardeners and farmers love them. So long as they don’t get bitten.
4) Centipedes (as with other arthropods) decided breathing through the mouth was for woosies and that breathing through holes behind their legs (called spiracles) was much more 21st Century. These spiracles lead into tracheal chambers that supply the entire body with oxygen by branching off into a network. The downside of breathing through your leg bases, yes there is one would you believe, is that centipedes are prone to losing water quickly, and subsequently dehydration is a real danger.
5) Males and females are hard to tell apart, not helped by the fact that the male lacks sex organs. To compensate for this lack of wedding tackle, the male will spin a small pad out of silk and leave a little package of his sperm on it. How romantic. The female ‘uses the sperm’ and consequently lays her eggs. She then provides maternal aid until the eggs hatch and the hatchlings are old enough to able to find their own food.
Emma-Louise Nicholls is the Museum Assistant at the Grant Museum of Zoology