Watch this centipede curl itself around its young to protect them

They have anywhere between 15 and 191 pairs of legs, are remarkably common, have been the subject and inspiration for horror movies over decades, are fearsome hunters and, it transpires, are also mothers who care deeply for their young.

The centipede is a creature of revulsion for many people. They're venomous, aggressive and willing to 'bite' if cornered or harassed. Some of them are large. Some of them are very large indeed. They have a tendency to show up when you least expect it: overturning a rock or tree limb when you're gardening or picking up a piece of clothing after rain.

Tender and terrifying: this common centipede is curling itself around its young to protect them. Picture: Caleb Cluff.

Tender and terrifying: this common centipede is curling itself around its young to protect them. Picture: Caleb Cluff.

For the scientifically curious, centipedes are chilopods, from the Latin for '100 feet'. They have a pair of legs for every body segment, and are closely related to millipedes (which have two sets of legs per segment). They are not insects, but like insects they are arthropods or 'hard-bodied', meaning they have an outer shell. A centipede's 'fangs' are really a poisonous set of legs near their mouth, called forcipules.

Centipedes are actually very helpful around the garden, eating a variety of pests including snails, as well as sometimes consuming leaf waste. Larger varieties are capable of subduing small lizards.

But perhaps most curiously, centipedes are caring parents. Unlike some spiders, who are not at all fussy about consuming their offspring if given the chance, a female centipede looks after her eggs and after the brood hatch will curl herself around them protectively.

Mother centipede and her young

Dr Ken Walker is the senior curator of entomology with Museums Victoria.

He says it's surprising how many invertebrates show motherly care for their offspring.

"For example, scorpions carry their babies on the back for weeks; wolf spiders also carry their young on their back for weeks," Dr Walker says.

"Centipedes have two ways of reproducing. Some lay eggs while others lay live young - basically, the eggs hatch inside the body of the mother and are then laid as live young. Both eggs and live young laying centipedes protect their eggs and young by encircling them. The egg-laying centipedes also lick the eggs to ensure no fungus or mould grows on the eggs that may kill the eggs.

"When the eggs hatch, the mother centipede continues to protect and encircle the live young which provides the young and vulnerable centipedes giving them a chance to grow and then they are able to protect themselves."

But why should we love centipedes?

"Humans seems to have an innate capacity to love furry and cuddly animals, but that love does not continue with our lesser known and less furry and cuddly animals such as centipedes, scorpions and insects," Dr Walker says

"And yet, they are all animals and all have a place in our environment and especially in our ecosystems.

"Centipedes are what we call predators. Think of them as the lions and tigers of the undergrowth or in your compost bin. Centipedes, like lions and tigers, are what we often refer to population regulators.

"What such population regulators do is to keep the insect numbers in check. Without these population regulators, insect numbers would explode and may cause all sorts of unwanted problems.

"Like with most native animals, the best way to treat them is to leave them alone. If handled, centipedes can inflict a deep and painful wound though fortunately, we have no deadly centipedes in Australia.

"Most people will rarely encounter a centipede unless they are gardening or turning over rocks where centipedes love to build a nest and where they are protected from other predators such as birds and lizards. If you do encounter a centipede, it's best to enjoy seeing it and watch it walk away into the garden or turn back over the rock."

Dr Walker says we should not be frightened of having centipedes in our gardens

"Centipedes like a moist environment so having a garden with lots plants for shade and lots of mulch for moisture will definitely encourage centipedes into your garden. They like places where they can hide during the day so they will not get attacked and eaten by birds and lizards.

"So put some large sized rocks in the garden and perhaps even add a few large size branches with holes inside the branches where centipedes can find a safe place to hide."

This video shows a scolopendrid centipede, a large and common central Victorian species, protecting her babies after being uncovered during building works. The forcipule legs are clearly visible, as are the extended last pair of legs of the centipede. These baby centipedes are born possessing their entire set of 21 pairs of legs, but at this stage they are helpless and easily predated by other hunters. Hence the defensive posture of the mother.

Currently, there are 136 species of centipedes known from Australia and Victoria has about 40 of these species.

This story This centipede is a crawling, caring mother first appeared on The Courier.