Invertebrate Insecurities

An African Giant Millipede

Millipedes have a variety of chemical and physical defence systems to protect themselves from predators, some of which are more impressive than others. Photo available here.

You can’t find my file? It’s Milton Millipede – two L’s. What’s that you say? Make myself comfortable? It’s hard to be comfortable lying here on this couch – my mother always told me if she caught any of my four hundred feet on the furniture there would be hell to pay.

Oedipus complex? No Doc, that’s not why I came. Truth is, I almost didn’t come to your office. It’s getting harder and harder to convince myself to crawl out from under the rock every day and get out into the forest to forage. I just keep thinking that it could all be over in a second. Ants, spiders, lizards, frogs, birds, shrews; the forest is full of things that want to eat me. I mean it’s really not safe out there, Doc. On Monday night, I was just minding my own business looking for some nice leaf litter to chew on and I get this feeling like I’m being watched. So I circle back a little and there’s this little punk assassin bug hiding under a fallen leaf. He was following me! Do you have any idea how deadly those things are? They just jump out of nowhere onto your back and jab you with that proboscis. Then you’ve got just enough time to realize what has happened before the enzymes and venom they’ve injected you with turn your insides into liquid for them to slurp out at their leisure. I was lucky there was a rock to scuttle under where he couldn’t get at me. Just thinking about how close I was to becoming a millipede milkshake gives me the heebie-jeebies. That’s the problem, Doc, I’m getting too scared to go out. I’ve got to go out to eat, but the forest just isn’t safe.

Millipedes often have bright, aposematic colouring that acts as a warning system for predators indicating the millipedes have other chemical defence systems. Photo by Luis Alejandro Bernal Romero.

Millipedes often have bright, aposematic colouring that acts as a warning system for predators indicating the millipedes have other chemical defence systems. Photo by: Luis Alejandro Bernal Romero.

It just feels like I got the evolutionary short-end of the stick in the family. I’ve got this second-cousin in Europe and he makes this stuff called glomerin. It’s some quinazolinone based sedative that can knock out a wolf spider for days. And one of my aunts, she’s gorgeous AND deadly. She’s one of those flashy aposematic species, all red and black stripes that spell out ‘danger’ to any animal with colour vision. If an assassin bug or a bird or a shrew comes anywhere near her? BAM. She nails them with hydrogen cyanide from these nifty little repugnatorial glands on her back. The stuff doesn’t seem to phase her at all, but it does a number on whatever is trying to eat her. Even if one of them does eventually get her in the end, at least she’s taking them down with her: I hear she can make enough of that stuff to kill a pigeon. When I was a larva, my mom used to tell me stories about these distant African relations we have that spray quinones so strong that they can blister skin. I’d feel a lot more secure if I was walking around knowing that a little squirt in the face from me would have all the mammals and amphibians crying, “Make the burning stop!!”

Focus on my own strengths and positive attributes? It’s tough to be positive when you’re in a family full of folks with bad-ass defense mechanisms and you’re the lowly guy that just smells too bad to eat. Sure, ants run the other direction when they see me coming, so I’ve got no troubles there, but so do most of the mammals in the neighbourhood and it sure doesn’t make me feel like I’m winning any popularity contests in the forest. To make matters worse, I’ve heard there are some birds in the area that have started using millipedes to keep the ants and mosquitoes away. Every time a shadow goes over, I get a full fledged panic attack because the only thing worse than getting your guts sucked out by an assassin bug would be getting speared by a woodcreeper, rubbed all over its feathers like roll-on bug-spray and then eaten whole. Not a dignified way to die.

Try curling up into a ball and staying still when there’s a bird around? Hey that’s not a bad idea, Doc. Lay low ‘till the thing flies over. Even if one does notice me, this exoskeleton I’m carrying around is calcium-reinforced chitin. It’s way tougher than the average insect exoskeleton, and no bird wants to chip a beak over a snack-sized morsel like me.

It’s been an hour already? Ok. Thanks, Doc. Same time next week? I’ll try out that ‘safe position’ with the birds, and if I don’t show up, you know it failed. Think positive? Right, positive. Stand strong, get out there, and shred it. It’s another night, and there’s a forest full of leaf litter with my name on it, just waiting to be eaten. Here goes!

Interested in a more in-depth scientific discussion of defense mechanisms in millipedes? Check out this review paper.

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