Myriapods - Types & Characteristics
Myriapods, creatures that seem to blur the line between imagination and reality with their countless legs and segmented bodies, are fascinating representatives of the invertebrate phylum Arthropoda. These creatures have roamed the Earth for ages, witnessing its evolution and playing a pivotal role in ecosystems, particularly in forested regions.
The name 'Myriapod' is reminiscent of the Greek words for 'countless' and 'foot', capturing the essence of these many-legged creatures. Over 11,000 living species have been documented, but the vast majority still remain hidden, seldom making their presence known. Yet, when they do – whether it's through mass migrations, chance encounters in homes, or the sting of certain tropical species – they never fail to evoke intrigue.
For many, myriapods are associated with a primal unease. Their multitude of legs and rapid movement can be disconcerting to some. However, beneath this alien appearance, myriapods play a significant role in our global ecosystem. Their tendency to consume dead plants aids in breaking down vegetable material, cycling nutrients back into the soil, and maintaining the health of our forests.
They are indicators of land-water relationships, making them vital for studies related to evolution and geographical dispersal. Their prevalence across various habitats, from tropical forests to grasslands and even some desert conditions, showcases their adaptability.
8 Characteristics of Myriapods
- Multitude of Legs: True to their name, myriapods possess numerous legs. The exact number varies depending on the species and its stage of life, but it’s always more than other arthropods.
- Segmented Body: Their bodies are distinctly segmented. Each segment, in many species, supports one or two pairs of legs.
- Diverse Diet: While the majority are phytosaprophagous, subsisting primarily on decaying plants, there are species that are predominantly carnivorous.
- Environmental Indicators: Myriapods are sensitive to changes in their environment. Their presence, absence, or abundance can provide crucial information about the health and characteristics of their habitat.
- Limited Migration: Myriapods are not known to migrate vast distances. Instead, they’re fairly sedentary creatures, often linked closely to specific habitats.
- Varied Habitats: Despite their limited mobility, myriapods are found in a wide range of environments, from damp forests to grasslands and even some arid regions.
- Defensive Mechanisms: Certain species of myriapods possess glands that can produce irritating or toxic substances as a defense against predators.
- Antennae: Like many of their arthropod relatives, myriapods are equipped with antennae, which help them sense their environment.
The 4 Types of Myriapods
There are 4 main classes of Myriapods. Keep reading below to learn about them!
Derived from the Greek words meaning “double foot”, millipedes are perhaps the most recognizable class of myriapods. Characterized by their elongated, cylindrical bodies and two pairs of legs on most body segments, they are primarily detritivores, feeding on decaying organic material.
Contrary to the common misconception, they don’t have a thousand legs; instead, their leg count ranges from 30 to 400. Some species can produce a pungent, defensive liquid to deter predators.
Centipedes, whose name in Latin means “hundred feet”, are agile and carnivorous, preying on insects and other small creatures. Unlike millipedes, centipedes have a flattened body and a single pair of legs per body segment.
Their frontmost legs have evolved into venomous fangs, which they use to subdue prey. They’re more aggressive than their millipede cousins and can deliver a painful bite to humans.
Pauropods are lesser-known relatives within the myriapod family, often found in soil and leaf litter. They are tiny, usually less than 2 mm in length.
Though they share similarities with millipedes, their body segments are less distinct, and they possess fewer legs, typically 9 or 11 pairs. They feed primarily on fungi and decaying matter.
Symphyla (Symphylans or Garden Centipedes)
Often mistaken for young centipedes, symphylans are small, white, soil-dwelling myriapods. They possess 12 body segments and have 10-12 pairs of legs. They play a significant role in soil health, feeding on organic matter, but can sometimes be pests to root crops.
Image via Wikimedia Commons
Frequently Asked Questions About Myriapods
No, not all myriapods are poisonous. Among them, centipedes are known to have venom, which they use for hunting, but not all are harmful to humans.
Myriapods reproduce sexually, with most species laying eggs. Some millipedes give birth to live young.
Millipedes have two pairs of legs per body segment, a rounded body, and are detritivores. Centipedes have one pair of legs per segment, a flattened body, and are carnivorous.
Lifespan varies by species. While some live only for a year or two, others, especially some millipedes, can live up to 7-10 years.
Their diet varies: millipedes feed on decaying organic matter, centipedes are carnivorous, pauropods eat fungi, and symphylans consume organic matter in the soil.
Generally, yes. They help break down organic material, enriching the soil. However, in some cases, like symphylans, they can damage root crops.
Many do, but their vision is usually quite rudimentary. Some species, especially those that live underground, may lack eyes entirely.
This is a defense mechanism, especially common in millipedes, to protect their more vulnerable underside.
Yes, many myriapods have the ability to regenerate lost or damaged legs over a series of molts.
They respire through a system of tubes called tracheae, which deliver oxygen directly to their tissues.
Learn More About Myriapod Species
Links to articles packed with surprising facts and knowledge to further learn about amazing species of Myriapods, so you know what you are looking at on your next wildlife trip!