In today’s herpetological culture, it is easier than ever to become lost when perusing the aisles of ophidians and saurians while perusing the local pet store or show. While the numbers are increasing for those people who want to own “bugs”, they are nowhere near rivaling the current market for snakes and lizards. Within the niche industry of herpetoculture there is another smaller niche dedicated to those who own and care for what most people term (inappropriately) as bugs. These “bugs” as they are called range from spiders and scorpions, which are arachnids to Centipedes and Millipedes, which are arthropods. Within this article, I will give a brief primer on the most popular and easier kept arthropods known as Millipedes.
To begin with, we must first look at what the major differences are between the two arthropods, which you may want to keep in the future. Generally speaking Millipedes are round while their counterparts; Centipedes are typically flat. Special notice should be paid to the words typical and general in the last sentence. While I have never seen a “round” Centipede, I have seen flat Millipedes in captivity. The flat Millipedes are rare for most part but they are out there for the intrepid searcher who should want to keep them.
The other obvious difference and key to identification telling a Millipede from a Centipede is that the legs of the Millipedes’ are always two pair per segment. While a Centipedes, legs number only one pair per segment. Also with Millipedes, they do not have the front pair of legs modified into pincer like jaws, which are attached to venom glands. Another identifying key when speaking of Centipedes and Millipedes is the terminal end, which is opposite the head. Millipedes terminate in a rounded end while Centipedes on the other hand terminate in a pair of long appendages that look somewhat like antennae.
Millipedes have been around since the dawn of time itself and remained relatively unchanged. This fact is one that only a few reptiles can claim today. While they are not any threat to the popularity of the more commonly kept snakes and lizards today, I think that many people would find them extremely fascinating pets if they would simply give them chance. Especially those who like the look of snakes but can’t get past feeding a snake another animal, if that should be the case then I would highly suggest looking into a Millipede.
Classification & Natural History
To me the Diplopoda class of the Arthropoda phylum represents the utmost of the “Circle of Life” as it were. They are those creatures, which clean the earth of the organic rotten waste that we look at as garbage, yet there they are cleaning up the mess. What is a Millipede anyway; they are in crass layman terms a bug to most of the avid herpetoculturists today. Millipedes as they are properly recognized are arthropods, which essentially mean an invertebrate with jointed legs.
There is extremely limited information when it comes to Millipedes in the general herpetocultural trade as a whole. To say that many authors disagree on just about every aspect of care and maintenance would be an understatement. Nevertheless, I will give you what I know from experience and the few reference materials I have had the opportunity to read. According to my research there are currently 11 orders with 10 of these being the major recognized ones[i]. Within these there are 5000 plus species recognized. Within this article I will only cover two of the 5000 species. This is because these in particular are readily available to most herpetoculturists today.
In the wild Millipedes inhabit a wide variety of microhabitats but are mainly found in either the tropical rainforest areas or dry desert like regions. The African Giant Black Millipede Archispirostreptus sp are said to be found in the dry regions of Eastern Africa, Israel, and even in Senegal.
Jerry G Walls a prolific herp author notes in Millipedes and Centipedes published by TFH that there are several species on the market and they can be quite different in appearance. He has noted and I have witnessed personally African Giant Brown Millipedes being offered for sale as well as the African Giant Black Millipede, the latter of which are in my experience much more common at least on the west coast of the United States that is.
According to Walls, the two Giants can be kept the same way. It is interesting to note that another citation has the African Giant Black Millipede living in the arid Coastal and Tropical Forests in West Africa according to their range map but the actual text says they inhabit the east coast[ii]. Another website I have encountered states that they are found in Western Africa[iii]. If I was to place a bet on which was right I would have to agree with the inclination that both species are imported from Tanzania as Mr. Walls states and are found in the coastal forest regions of that area. This opinion is based on the observations that I have personally made while maintaining this species. I have always kept the species in a coastal forest type of environment and have had much success doing this.
When keeping Millipedes there are several options, you have as you would with any type of pet when it comes to enclosures. There are many plastic and glass enclosures that are available from any pet shop or store. However, the first thing that you must do is make absolutely sure that the lid is tight fitting. I have heard on several occasions that Millipedes have reached the top of plastic enclosures and unclipped the lids. This is also true for screen lids which have been clipped into place as well.
Personally with my Millipedes I have always used a sliding lid with a pin. In the years that I have owned Millipedes I have yet to have one strong enough that it could remove a pinned lid from its’ enclosure and escape. I have heard that any size of enclosure can be used within the range of 5 to 10 gallons in size. My experience has shown that a 5 gallon breeder enclosure is the best to use when trying to keep Millipedes. With this size of enclosure, you can house the Millipede and provide all the necessities without getting too extravagant.
If you wanted to add plants to the enclosure then I would advise a much larger enclosure. Within a planted enclosure you must be sure to add plants that would not be toxic to the Millipede should it decide to dine on the plant material rather than the food offered. For this reason, I have always opted not to add live plants to any enclosure in which I planned to use for a Millipede. This is also a problem when the Millipede reaches maturity as it will be an extremely heavy creature for its size and will probably destroy the plants anyway as it explores. In most of the accounts that I have read it seems that all of the giant species are well adept climbers. Therefore, plants may be a bad idea when trying to house these interesting creatures because they might use these to their advantage and injure themselves in a fall.
When it comes to substrate choices you can select from a few different ones or a mixture of them. Most of the tropical Millipedes can be housed on hardwood bark chips except for Cedar which may contain some harmful oils. This is primarily what I have used whenever keeping any type of tropical Millipede and have never had any failures or deaths doing so. To my knowledge there are certain keepers out there that mix the bark with fine sand and use this type of mixture for the substrate without ill effects.
I have also heard of keeper’s combining sphagnum and other mosses with bark as well. More than one author has recorded success keeping Giants on a substrate of mixed potting soil and bark. When keeping the desert species of Millipedes I have used washed play sand and fine grain silica sand. If my original presumption is to be believed that both the Giants be they brown or black are found in the coastal forests then I would keep them on a mixed substrate of orchid bark and washed play sand. I do keep my personal giant Millipedes in this substrate.
I am of the opinion that any substrate used should be at a depth 1 ½” to 2”. This will allow the Millipede to burrow and or make a depression in which to shed when it needs to. I think that the best bet for anyone venturing to keep Giants should experiment so to speak. Experimentation could lead to new and previously undiscovered mixtures being exactly what the Giants are most comfortable with in a captive setting. If you should want to experiment I recommend that you set-up half the enclosure as prescribed and then the other half with the experimental soils and substrates you think would work well. After which it would simply be a manner of sitting back and observing your pet. Millipedes will, like all creatures gravitate to what they need.
When it comes to lighting the enclosure the Millipedes are for the most part are a nocturnal foraging species that have no real requirements for UV lighting of any kind. However, they are also not effected in a detrimental way if you light their enclosure with a plant bulb in order to grow live plants within the enclosure. One thing that needs to happen should you choose to use plants and a plant light is make sure that there is a definite day and night cycle.
This topic in itself might be debated with other keepers as far as the care of Millipedes but those species that I have owned have always been kept at room temperature. None that I have ever kept were given any type of supplemental heating source. They have never exhibited any ill effects from not being heated. However, I have noticed that the tropical species to become more active when the temperatures of their enclosure are about 80° F. My home throughout the year typically never gets below 76° F and has gone up to 100° F during the summer months. I am of the opinion that most Millipedes whether they are Desert or Tropical do not fare well in temperatures over about 85°F. When the temperatures have reached into this area, I have resorted to spraying heavily and this is apparently working for I have had the same African Giant Black Millipede Archispirostreptus spp. for many years now.
With the Desert species of Millipedes, I would definitely advise a warmer ambient temperature than what is typically found with the keepers’ home. This would be most easily accomplished via an U.T.H. or Under Tank Heater. I am sure you could do the same with a heating lamp but I would be concerned about creating a singular basking spot and not actually heating the ambient temperature as it would with a U.T.H. which spreads out the heat rather than focus’ it in one particular area. I should mention here as well that just because they are Desert species doesn’t mean by any means that they are typically exposed to high temperatures in the wild. Generally, it has been said that they actually maintain a similar temperature to the tropical species of around 80°F. Therefore, I would only suggest a U.T.H. only if your home gets below their typical average temperature.
As far decorating the Millipede enclosure I recommend that you keep it to a minimum. Plants must be of a safe variety for the Millipede to eat and sturdy enough to handle the climbing that will no doubt happen. I wouldn’t place cork bark panels on the walls either. This will only allow the Millipede to access the screen top and possibly injure themselves by pulling off legs if they should drop under their own weight. I have seen it recommended that all Millipedes be given climbing branches and cork type of bark to crawl on but I have maintained my personal collections and those in shops where I have worked without these seemingly with no ill effects.
The only types of décor that are placed into my enclosures are a feeding dish, water dish, and a hide box. The reason I use feeding dishes is to prevent ingestion of any foreign substance that may cause harm. I have never heard of a Millipede becoming impacted but why take the risk. I have heard of many keepers not using any type of dish for feeding at all and being very successful doing so. As far as hides go I will typically try and match the type of hide with the natural environment. Meaning a desert species will have a rock hide and a tropical one will have a bark hide.
Greens, fruits, and vegetables are the typical fare of the Millipede species. I have read that they will occasionally eat carrion but I have personally never tried feeding such foods. I have noticed that the firmer melons, greens, vegetables are most relished by the African Giant Archispirostreptus gigas. Cantaloupe, Honeydew, and other such melons are seemingly treats to my collection, which they will devour overnight. Bananas are another favorite of Millipedes as well. They typically seem to enjoy them more when they have just begun to brown. Your typical lettuces, and greens such as collards and mustard greens are eaten but they will leave the stems of such vegetables. Tomatoes, cucumbers, and squashes are also eaten if they are first cut so they can gain access to the fleshy part inside. Although my Millipedes never really seemed to like them, I have read several reports that the Giants will eat apples as well.
To be truly honest all Millipedes are quite messy when compared to other creatures, which are kept in captivity. They don’t produce an excessive amount of waste but the foods they are fed tend to spoil quickly and must be refreshed about every other day in order to keep any odor build up away. I change the substrate completely every other week in order to ensure a healthy environment. Each time I change the food out, I also wash the feeding and water bowl completely with warm water.
I have read varying accounts on whether or not the mites found on most Giant Millipedes should be left alone or not. Some authors claim that these are commensal mites, which are evidently free loaders, which pick bits of food off the Millipede. Other authors say that these can become a nuisance and should be removed. I have yet to find any written account of how these mites would be a nuisance to the Millipede or why they would be at all detrimental to the development or lifespan of the Millipede itself. I myself have never tried to remove the commensal mites for fear that it might actually have a negative effect. In the years that I have kept Millipedes, I have never had a Millipede mite detach itself and try to climb on me.
There are really no unusual behavioral aspects to be explained when it comes to Millipedes. However, they do have some behaviors, which to me personally are worth mentioning here. They typically spend most of the day curled up in the provided hide. As soon as night falls, though they come alive and begin searching for food. They will cruise the entirety of the enclosure seemingly for a way out. Once they encounter the food, they will dine on the offered fare for approximately an hour or so. After this, they will usually roam again for the remainder of the night.
Another behavior of interest is even when offered a bowl of water they will sometimes choose not to drink from it at all. Yet, when they indirectly sprayed with water, they will uncurl their body and actively look for water droplets wherever they can find them and drink them off the glass and the screen top if they can reach it. They will sometimes drink from their own body segments as well.
When handling Giant Millipedes I would suggest that you be prepared to encounter a foul smell. This is due to their habit of excreting a foul chemical from the sides of their bodies through what are known as repugnatorial pores. There are authors who claim that the Giants can stain the hands with the repugnatorial pores. I have seen photos of this but I have never personally experienced any sort of staining on my hands from handling Millipedes. My personal African Giant Millipede Archispirostreptus spp., which I keep, seems to be used to being handled now but when she first arrived, she would repeatedly gift me with several excrements and the chemical cocktail from her pores. I would always smell a foul odor but I have never had my hands become stained from any handling.
Millipedes as Pets
Millipedes make incredibly interesting pets and even ambassadors for anyone who has even a passing interest in keeping any of the “bugs” which are offered in most reptile shops today. They are not only safer and more easily handled than the other bugs, but they can also be fed a very simple diet. When friends come over and ask what’s in the cage this is a great opportunity to take advantage of the usual “freak-out factor”. This is usually what occurs when you bring out your pet. This of course makes the African Giant Black Millipede Archispirostreptus spp. a great conversation starter. Who knows you might even get a friend interested in keeping these incredible pets.
For more information on Millipedes and their care we recommend checking our library
[i] Millipedes and Centipedes Walls G. Jerry TFH Publishing