Mulch munchers: How millipedes contribute to conservation

IN the hinterland of Tamil Nadu a riddle goes thus: Kandaal vandi, thottal chakram (Appears like a prepare, contact and it’s a wheel).

The reply: millipedes.

In case you are a kind of who don’t thoughts getting your arms soiled within the soil, these generally crawling black and yellow creatures (Anoplodesmus species) can be no stranger. They’re millipedes, creatures which can be “appeared down upon”, although in actuality they need to be worshipped, a degree you may concur with as you end studying this piece. In some cultures they’re revered.

What are they?

Millipedes belong to the category Diplopoda of the subphylum Myriapoda—a gaggle that incorporates backbone-less animals with “many legs” (therefore the time period Myriapoda). Myriapoda is a subgroup of the phylum Arthropoda. The time period Diplopoda describes them extra precisely as they’ve two (diplo) pairs of legs (poda) in every phase of their physique.

The Diplopoda are among the many giant lessons within the animal kingdom, however they stay virtually in anonymity, eclipsed by their extra well-known and (extra effectively studied) Arthropod cousins—bugs and arachnids. It’s a pity that they continue to be unknown, for, if not something, they arrived on earth earlier than bugs or spiders and have a distinguished evolutionary historical past spanning practically 400 million years. There’s a concept that the ancestors of bugs may very well have developed from Myriapods. Within the area of evolution, every part is topic to doubt and cross-examination, and therefore the jury remains to be out on whether or not Myriapods or crustaceans are the ancestors of bugs.

There are about 80,000 millipede species on the earth. Solely 12,000 or so of those have been described up to now. India is dwelling to over 270 species. In India, millipedes of the order Polydesmida are probably the most numerous (86 species belonging to 41 genera). Greater than 70 per cent of Indian millipedes are endemic, a lot of them to south India the place millipedes have been studied higher than in different components of the nation. Though the phrase millipede is derived from Latin phrases mille (thousand) and ped (foot), the variety of legs ranges from 11 to 375.

The North American Illacme plenipes, with a file 750 legs, was just lately dethroned because the species with probably the most variety of legs. A crew of researchers led by Dr Paul Merk discovered a millipede, Eumillipes persephone, with 1,306 legs at a depth of 60 metres in Australia. Belonging to the order Polyzoniida, it was found whereas drilling a gap for mineral exploration.

Millipedes vary in dimension from dwarfs with a physique size of 1.4 mm to giants with 30 cm. They’re labeled into 5 varieties primarily based on their physique construction: rammers, litter splitters, borers, capsule millipedes, and bark dwellers.


Rammers, or bulldozers as they’re generally referred to, belong to the orders Julida, Spirobolida and Spirostreptida. They’re lengthy, skinny, cylindrical, and use their heads like a bulldozer to push via leaf litter. Their quite a few legs present the pressure to push via soil and litter. Spirostreptids vary in dimension from the biggest millipedes to the smallest. They’re tailored to stay in varied varieties of biomes—rain forests, grasslands, deserts and caves.

The Spirobolid species, however, seems uniformly comparable and it’s troublesome to establish the species from their exterior traits. They’re predominantly tropical in distribution. Julids present appreciable range in type and physique construction and are effectively distributed within the Neotropical areas.

Wedge or litter splitters, also referred to as plate millipedes, are probably the most numerous Indian species within the order Polydesmida. These are quick millipedes with 18-21 segments. Every phase has a laterally expanded projection known as keel that offers it a flattened look. The keel assists the millipede in motion. Some species have pores on their our bodies from which they launch irritant chemical compounds similar to hydrogen cyanide and formic acid. These are launched slowly, and in some uncommon instances sprayed out.

Being detritivores (feeding on useless natural materials), millipedes are additionally discovered to reside in caves, specifically tailored to the troglobitic (sure to underground habitats) lifestyle. A blind millipede, Typhlopygmaeosoma hazeltonae, belonging to the order Polydesmida, was found from a cave close to Shimla. Whereas 100 species of cave dwellers have been found in China, just one cave dweller has been described in India. Clearly, millipede research haven’t taken off in India, regardless of them being an ecologically essential group.

Millipedes of the order Chordeumatida and Colobognatha are generally known as borers. These too are small in dimension with free sternites and tergites (segments of the physique). They’ve slender, pointed heads with successive segments bigger than the earlier one. This association with a tapering anterior area helps them in ahead motion and soil penetration. They suck vitamins from rotting vegetation.

Capsule millipedes or rollers just do what their identify suggests—roll right into a neat ball when a menace is perceived. They don’t roll right into a wheel as is seen amongst bulldozers, however right into a tightly shut ball. A locking mechanism ensures that they can’t be prised open except you hurt them. That’s the reason they’re also referred to as ball millipedes. Once you maintain them in your hand, they’re like a small ball or tender stone. Go away them alone for a while and you may see them unroll themselves. That is additionally a protecting mechanism to cut back water loss by lowering the floor space uncovered to air.

They belong both to the order Glomerida or Sphaerotheriida. The previous has 12 physique segments, whereas the latter has 13, which is without doubt one of the traits to establish them. Glomerida are usually present in north India, whereas Sphaerotheriida are discovered all through India though predominantly they’re a south Indian species. The enormous capsule millipedes of the genus Arthosphaera are endemic to south India. These are utilized in producing millicompost.

Bark dwellers or bristle millipedes stay underneath the barks of timber. These are extra frequent in tropical areas, are fairly small, and have a definite look as their tender physique is roofed with setae (bristles). At first sight they are often mistaken to be the larvae of the dermestid beetle. Their legs are used just for strolling and, in contrast to in different millipedes, aren’t modified for mating or sperm switch. Since they’re small—lower than 5mm lengthy—with a tender physique bereft of the laborious exoskeleton, and produce no chemical compounds for defence, they use their bristles to defend themselves. When threatened by a predator, the sharp, barbed bristles are indifferent from the physique and get entangled within the mouth or physique components of the predator, giving them time to flee. They belong to the order Polyxenida. The researchers Sergei Golovatch and Thomas Wesener1 report eight species of bark dwellers from south India, of which Unixenus padmanabhai and Silvestrus seminudus happen within the southern Western Ghats area.

Ecological significance

Millipedes favor environments with fixed to excessive moisture ranges and reasonable temperatures. They’re due to this fact abundantly distributed—each when it comes to numbers and variety—within the tropical and subtropical areas of the world. Whereas most are predominantly forest-floor/soil dwellers, a few of them climb timber to reside in crevices to feed and escape the warmth.

Greater than tigers and different giant carnivores, millipedes are among the many ecologically important invertebrates whose presence helps preserve nature. How are they ecologically important? One purpose is that they’re mulch-munchers. In fashionable parlance, you possibly can say they’re within the enterprise of waste disposal.

They’re environment friendly as mechanical decomposers of wooden and leaf litter. In actual fact, they’re the leaders of the pack of invertebrates that break down wooden and leaves and enhance soil mineralisation. As detritivores, they contribute not directly to the decomposition of soil ‘wastes’. Their feeding stimulates microbial exercise in plant materials which releases chemical vitamins into the soil.

The researchers J.M. Anderson and D.E. Bignell have reported that plant materials passing via the intestine of millipedes may also help within the institution of soil micro organism. In accordance with the researchers, though millipedes feed on solely 10 per cent of the overall leaf litter in an ecosystem, 90 per cent of that litter is damaged down due to the microbial exercise. This leads to the redistribution of natural supplies and a rise in parts similar to nitrogen, making the soil wholesome. Millipedes’ desire for sure varieties of decaying litter is intently associated to the nitrogen, carbohydrate and moisture content material in it. They like leaves with the next focus of sugars and low concentrations of polyphenols.

An evaluation of the digestive tract of Anoplodesmus splendidus has revealed the presence of quite a lot of micro organism and fungi2 in it. Whereas the stomodaeum (anterior a part of the intestine) was populated by micro organism, the proctodaeum (posterior half) was host to fungal inhabitants.

Microbial inhabitants within the intestine of a number of different millipede species has additionally been recorded. A latest discovery has been the fungal affiliation with a species of Colobognatha. It was discovered that wood-decaying fungi served as a main meals supply for the fungivorous millipede, Brachycybe lecontii.


Millipedes contribute not solely to soil formation but additionally to its physiological and chemical properties. Composting utilizing millipedes has been found to be a boon for natural farming and bettering soil well being.3

Millicompost was first tried utilizing the enormous capsule millipede Arthosphaera magna in 2002. Subsequent trials by varied researchers confirmed the superior high quality of millicompost and its helpful impact on plant development. But it’s nonetheless in its infancy, failing to seize the eye of farmers or promoters of natural agriculture.

Research have proven that millipede composting yields a richer finish product than vermicomposting. A comparative research4 of compost produced from flower wastes utilizing the earthworm Eisenia fetida and the millipede Arthosphaera magna confirmed that the content material of nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and calcium was larger in millicompost.

The analysis additionally studied the impact of those composts on varied development parameters of Capsicum annum, similar to plant peak, quantity and space of leaves, variety of fruits produced, and chlorophyll content material. All these parameters confirmed a significantly better outcome when grown with millicompost than vermicompost.

The Anoplodesmus species, Orthomorpha coarctata and Xenobolus carnifex which can be frequent in India will also be used to provide compost. Nevertheless, there’s a phrase of warning. A few of them begin feeding on newly sprouted seedlings in the event that they run out of leaf litter. At a time when soil well being is a priority to farmers, millipede composting deserves extra consideration.

Tummy physician for lemurs

The ecological significance of millipedes extends past soil well being. A number of life varieties within the wild have found that millipedes treatment their digestive issues. Louise Peckre and her colleagues from the German Primate Centre in Gottingen noticed that the red-fronted lemurs of Madagascar chewed on freshly emerged millipedes after the primary rain of the season. Giant portions of an orange-coloured substance had been thus produced. The lemurs rubbed this orange secretion round their anuses, tails and genitals.

The chemical benzoquinone, secreted by millipedes, is a mosquito repellent. It helped the lemurs do away with worms, amongst them pinworms and their eggs across the anus.

The researchers seen that the lemurs additionally consumed a lot of millipedes. The millipede secretions additionally assist cleanse the parasites discovered of their stomachs and intestines. In accordance with the researchers, the lemurs consumed millipedes each as a healing and as a safety measure.

Millipedes secrete quite a lot of chemical compounds to chase away predators. Such chemical compounds are repellents, irritants, sedatives or poisonous substances. Opossums, meerkats, striped skunks, capuchin monkeys and a few chook species devour or use millipedes or their secretions to guard themselves.

Not too long ago, Henrik Enghoff5 of the Pure Historical past Museum, Denmark, and colleagues discovered that the Bobo folks of Burkina Faso devour millipedes as meals. They eat the flatbacked and cylindrical millipede species which can be endemic to that area. These species are wealthy in unsaturated fatty acids, calcium and iron.

Burkino Faso is dwelling to a number of species of the malarial parasite plasmodium. The benzoquinone from millipedes assist function insect repellents. The ingestion of the cyanide (produced in sublethal portions) can also be believed to construct resistance to malaria. In accordance with the researchers, “…ethological and bioanthropological evidences counsel that ‘poisonous’ millipedes consumed by the Bobo folks participate in a fancy biocultural mechanism for malaria management”.

Eight-year periodic millipede

Attention-grabbing discoveries about millipedes repeatedly emanate from South Asian nations. Since 1920, prepare operators in Japan have noticed that swarms of millipedes periodically descended on to the tracks within the thick, forested mountains in Honshu, forcing the trains to halt6. Then, as mysteriously as they arrived, they’d disappear, to not be seen for an additional eight years.

Scientists solved this thriller within the Seventies.

The “train-millipedes”, as they’re recognized regionally, are endemic to Japan. Like cicadas and bamboo, they too have an eight-year life cycle. The findings by scientists matched the observations by prepare drivers, who would maintain information of their swarming, because it was not possible to even stroll via because the millipedes shaped a dense blanket over the rails. Professors from Shizuko College painstakingly collected historic information and decided their life phases to resolve the thriller. They found a synchronisation between a number of broods. Every brood accomplished its life cycle in eight years. It took seven years from the laying of eggs to grow to be an grownup, which all the time emerged in summer season.

Why did they seem on the tracks? In the hunt for meals. All millipedes want useless and decaying leaves to outlive. As soon as they clear up all of the accessible leaves on the website of their beginning, they transfer seeking new pastures, and the prepare observe occurs to be of their path. When the adults have had their fill, they mate, lay eggs and die. The nymphs stay contained in the soil, and solely the rising adults get seen. Periodic swarming of millipedes in such giant numbers is but to be noticed elsewhere.


An account of millipedes can be incomplete with out mentioning centipedes, with whom they’re typically mistaken. Simply as millipedes are stated to have a thousand legs, the centipedes are mistakenly believed to have 100 legs.

Centipedes belong to the order Chilopoda. In contrast to millipedes, they’ve just one pair of legs in a phase. That is a technique of distinguishing them from millipedes.

Centipedes are carnivorous, and their chew carries a venom that may hurt people. They too are discovered within the soil, however in contrast to millipedes that laze about within the soil, centipedes are fast movers. They cover under stones, wooden or any rotting materials, and when found transfer quick seeking one other hiding place. The languorous motion of a millipede is in distinction to the darting motion of centipedes.

Regardless of being venomous, the centipede finds point out in lots of cultures. For Koreans it’s a signal of excellent luck and wealth. The Korean phrase for centipede interprets to ‘cash bag’.

The centipede carries deep symbolism in Asian cultures. Thought-about to have therapeutic powers, it is a vital element in conventional Chinese language medication. It’s a fortunate allure in Feng Shui.

Historic Egyptians, noticing that the centipede ate up bugs that attacked useless our bodies, worshipped Sepa or the Centipede of Horus. They believed that the centipede had powers to subdue venomous creatures. Sepa was typically known as upon to guard in opposition to scorpions and snakes.

Millipedes, however, had been the favorite of African individuals who stored large millipedes as pets. They believed that it introduced them good luck. Gamblers would carry millipedes with them to extend their possibilities of successful bets.

Allure or not, conserving millipedes has a whole lot of benefits. Step one is to get to know the numerous species in a single’s nation; millipede taxonomy is simply starting to draw researchers. The following is to check their life histories. The truth that a millipede may survive at 60m under floor exhibits how people know little or no in regards to the range of small varieties, the place they reside or what they do. The one approach to make sure that we don’t lose millipede range is to cease habitat destruction. Millipedes assist preserve soil and, by extension, the terrestrial habitat. They’re essential parts of the forest ecosystem, and their life-style could be a boon to farmers seeking options to chemical compounds. The animal world makes use of them as insect repellents. Do we want extra causes to guard them? A millipede motion is the necessity of the hour.



1. Sergei I. Golovatch & Thomas Wesener: Monograph-A species guidelines of the millipedes (Myriapoda, Diplopoda) of India. Zootaxa 4129 (1): 001–075

 2. Bano, Kubra,Bagyaraj D.J. & Krishnamurthy R.V.: Feeding exercise of the millipede, Jonespeltis splendidus and soil humification. Nationwide Academy of Sciences, India, Vol. 83B, No. 1, 1976, pp. 1-11

3. Ashwini Ok.M. & Sridhar Ok.R.: In direction of Natural farming with millipede Arthosphaera magna. Present Science, Vol. 82, No.1, 10 January 2002. Pages 20-22.

4. Ramanathan B. & Alagesan P.: Analysis of millicompost versus vermicompost. Present Science, Vol. 103, No. 2, 25 July 2012. Pages 140-143.

5. Enghoff,H. et al: Millipedes as Meals for People: Their Dietary and Attainable Antimalarial Worth—A First Report. Hindawi Publishing Company, Quantity 2014, Article ID 651768,9pages.


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