Not quite a thousand legs: The millipede's most obvious feature is its large number of legs.
In fact its name is a compound word formed from the Latin roots
milli ("thousand") and ped ("foot"). Despite
their name, these creatures do not have a thousand legs, although
some rare species have up to 750. However, common species have between
80 and 400 legs.
Short legs = slow: Having very many short legs makes millipedes rather slow, but they
are powerful burrowers. Waving their body length and with the legs
moving in a wavelike pattern, they easily force their way underground,
head first. They also seem to have some engineering ability, reinforcing
the tunnel by rearranging the particles around it.
The head contains a pair of sensory organs known as the Tömösváry
organs. These are found just posterior and lateral to the antennae,
and is shaped as small and oval rings at the base of the antennae.
They are probably used to measure the humidity in the surroundings,
and they may have some chemoreceptory abilities too.
Tight coil defense: Due to their lack of speed, millipedes' primary defense mechanism
is to curl into a tight coilprotecting their delicate legs
inside an armoured body exterior. Many species also emit a somewhat
poisonous liquid secretion or hydrogen cyanide gas through microscopic
pores along the sides of their bodies as a secondary defense. Some
of these substances are acidic and can burn the exoskeleton of ants
and other insect predators, and the skin and eyes of larger predators.
As far as humans are concerned, this chemical brew is fairly harmless,
although it should never be eaten or applied to the eyes. Because
of this, caution should be used when handling millipedes. Lemurs
have been known to intentionally irritate millipedes in order to
rub the chemicals on themselves to repel insect pests, and possibly
to produce a psychoactive effect. Some millipede species may be
Millipedes stink when irritated - or crushed! Millipedes, especially if irritated or crushed, give off an offensive
odor, often to the annoyance of homeowners. To rid millipedes from
an indoor environment with minimal spread of odor, it is best to
vacuum them and soon discard the bag so that the vacuum does not
retain the smell of the foul odor.
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