If you go for a walk in the woods right now I almost guarantee you will see a “thousand legs” bug about 2-3 inches long that has a flat shiny black body with yellow stripes along the edges. They must be having a real good year, for I’ve seen lots of them. I couldn’t find a common name for them, but to the science guys they are Apheloria virginiensis, one of the larger millipedes we have in our area.
Okay, science class review: millipedes are arthropods (animals that have an exoskeleton, a segmented body, and jointed legs). A millipede has two pair of legs per body segment, while a centipede has only one pair. Centipedes move rapidly and are hunters, preying on insects and spiders using mean looking pincer-like mouthparts. Millipedes on the other hand, are slow moving critters that feed on decaying matter like dead leaves. Your fancy word for the day is detritivore, one who eats decomposing matter.
Another impressive multi-leg you will find in the woods is the North American millipede (Narceus americanus), the largest millipede we have around here, coming in at four inches long. It has a rounded purplish-brown body with a thin band of red on the rear edge of each segment.
If you pick up one of these millipedes it will likely go into a defensive mode to protect its head by curling up in to a spiral. To further discourage being bothered they will poop on you and emit an odd smelling fluid that’s kind of fruity, but not particularly pleasant. This fluid is a defensive chemical weapon that is a form of hydrogen cyanide. It can cause irritation to sensitive skin and the eyes, so be careful. It will also likely stain your hand.
It is fascinating to watch these guys walk, with the legs moving along the body like a slow ocean wave to create a very smooth, fluid motion. The millipede’s feeding habit of crunching on dead stuff on the forest floor is beneficial in helping move the decomposition process through the nutrient cycle, so when you see them say thanks.