Centipedes (from Latin prefix centi-, "hundred", and pes, pedis, "foot") are arthropods belonging to the class Chilopoda of the subphylum Myriapoda. They are elongated metameric animals with one pair of legs per body segment. Despite the name, centipedes can have a varying number of legs from under 20 to over 300. Centipedes have an odd number of pairs of legs, e.g. 15 or 17 pairs of legs (30 or 34 legs) but never 16 pairs (32 legs).A key trait uniting this group is a pair of venom claws or "forcipules" formed from a modified first appendage. Centipedes are a predominantly carnivorous taxon.
Centipedes normally have a drab coloration combining shades of brown and red. Cavernicolous (cave-dwelling) and subterranean species may lack pigmentation and many tropical scolopendromorphs have bright aposematic colours. Size can range from a few millimetres in the smaller lithobiomorphs and geophilomorphs to about 30 cm (12 in) in the largest scolopendromorphs. Centipedes can be found in a wide variety of environments.
Worldwide there are estimated to be 8,000 species of centipede, of which 3,000 have been described. Centipedes have a wide geographical range, reaching beyond the Arctic Circle.Centipedes are found in an array of terrestrial habitats from tropical rainforests to deserts. Within these habitats centipedes require a moist micro-habitat because they lack the waxy cuticle of insects and arachnids, and so lose water rapidly through the skin. Accordingly, they are found in soil and leaf litter, under stones and dead wood, and inside logs. Centipedes are among the largest terrestrial invertebrate predators and often contribute significantly to the invertebrate predatory biomass in terrestrial ecosystems.
Centipedes are a predominantly predatory taxon. They are generalist predators, which means that they have adapted to eat a variety of different available prey. Examination of centipede gut contents suggest that plant material is an unimportant part of their diet although centipedes have been observed to eat vegetable matter when starved during laboratory experiments.Centipedes are mostly nocturnal. Studies on centipede activity rhythms confirm this, although there are a few observations of centipedes active during the day and one species Strigamia chinophila that is diurnal. What centipedes actually eat is not well known because of their cryptic lifestyle and thorough mastication of food. Laboratory feeding trials support that they will feed as generalists, taking most anything that is soft-bodied and in a reasonable size range. It has been suggested that earthworms provide the bulk of diets for Geophilomorphs, since Geophilomorphs burrow through the soil and earthworm bodies would be easily pierced by their poison claws. Observations suggest that Geophilomorphs cannot subdue earthworms larger than themselves, and so smaller earthworms may be a substantial proportion of their diet. Scolopendromorphs, given their size, are able to feed on vertebrates as well as invertebrates. They have been observed eating reptiles, amphibians, small mammals, bats and birds. Collembola may provide a large proportion of Lithiobiomorph diet. Little is known about Scutigeromorph or Craterostigmomorph diets. All centipedes are potential intraguild predators. Centipedes and spiders may frequently prey on one another.
Centipedes are eaten by a great many vertebrates and invertebrates, such as mongooses, mice, salamanders, beetles and snakes. They form an important item of diet for many species and the staple diet of some such as the African ant Amblyopone pluto, which feeds solely on geophilomorph centipedes, and the South African Cape black-headed snake Aparallactus capensis. Centipedes are found in moist microhabitats. Water regulation is an important aspect of their ecology, since they lose water rapidly in dry conditions. Water loss is a result of centipedes lacking a waxy covering of their exoskeleton and excreting waste nitrogen as ammonia, which requires extra water. Centipedes deal with water loss through a variety of adaptations. Geophilomorphs lose water less rapidly than Lithobiomorphs even though they have a greater surface area to volume ratio. This may be explained by the fact that Geophilomorphs have a more heavily sclerotized pleural membrane. Spiracle shape, size and ability to constrict also have an influence on rate of water loss. In addition, it has been suggested that number and size of coxal pores may be variables affecting centipede water balance.
Centipedes live in many different habitat types — forest, savannah, prairie, and desert, to name a few. Some Geophilomorphs are adapted to littoral habitats, where they feed on barnacles.Species of all orders excluding Craterostigmomorpha have adapted to caves. Centipede densities have been recorded as high as 600/m2 and biomass as high as 500 mg/m2 wet weight. Small geophilomorphs attain highest densities, followed by small Lithobiomorphs. Large Lithobiomorphs attain densities of 20/m2. One study of scolopendromorphs records Scolopendra morsitans in a Nigerian savannah at a density of 0.16/m2 and a biomass of 140 mg/m2 wet weight.