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dangerous centipedes

I was wondering if someone could clarify the threat posed by giant redheaded centipede: Scolopendra heros. The Info page doesn't say, and there are a range of comments on individual pictures, such as:
"not dangerous to humans"
"centipedes definitely don't kill people. They are less dangerous compare to some poisonous spiders. It might cause severe pain, swelling and redness, swollen, headache, nausea and vomiting. If bite become infected it should be treated with broad-spectrum antibiotics."
"not considered 'dangerous', but can inflict a very painful 'bite' (mildly venomous)"
"venom of a giant centipede is said to be EXTREMELY painful yet not deadly"

But there definitely ARE case reports of centipedes killing people -- within this genus, if not this species.

The following story on a Univ. of Arkansas website, has been circulating the internet:
"Scolopendra heros is purported to make tiny incisions with its legs while walking across human skin. When the animal is irritated, a poison is supposedly produced near the base of each leg and dropped into the wounds causing inflammation and irritation. According to one story cited by Dr. Baerg, an officer in the Confederate Army, while sleeping in his tent, was suddenly aroused by the creepy feeling of a large centipede crawling on his chest. A number of spots of deep red, forming a broad streak, indicated the arthropod’s passage across the man’s chest and abdomen. Violent pain and convulsions soon set in, accompanied by excessive swelling in the bitten area. The victim fought with death for two days and then succumbed. The agony suffered by the bitten officer was described by an eyewitness as the most frightful he had ever observed.”

When I came across this story, I set out to see if it was true, but couldn't come up with much.
A Medscape article on Centipede Envenomation included this case report:
"A case of rhabdomyolysis complicated by compartment syndrome and acute renal failure requiring temporary hemodialysis has been reported following the sting of the giant desert centipede, Scolopendra heros. Prolonged, isolated proteinuria without any other evidence of renal dysfunction has also been reported in a young female following Scolopendra sting. "

Logan JL, Ogden DA. Rhabdomyolysis and acute renal failure following the bite of the giant desert centipede Scolopendra heros. West J Med. Apr 1985;142(4):549-50.

From a medical textbook on wordpress:
"Of centipedes, only the bite of the giant Scolopendra heros of the southwestern United States is life threatening, principally to children. It injects hemolytic and cardiotoxic venom, causing local necrosis, severe systemic symptoms, and even rhabdomyolytic renal failure. Treatment is supportive."

Obviously we shouldn't handle a giant centipede, but to me there is a big difference between "not dangerous to humans", "bite can hurt a lot but not kill", "could cause acute renal failure" and "could die horribly if it walks across you". So, can anyone say something with authority about this particular species, and should the guide comments NOT assert it's "not dangerous" in the context of these reports? Also, can someone clarify the business of venom coming from anywhere other than the usual front tarsi?


Good point, but perspective is called for
Not very many cases, though. WHO estimates one death per week in the USA attributable to bee strings -- vs. 93 per DAY for motor vehicles (2009).

From Dr. Rowland
There are no unequivocal, recorded instances of human death from the bite of any centipede, and this applies to only two orders some of whose members are large and powerful enough to pierce human skin with their forcipules and inject toxin – Scolopendromorpha (S. heros is in the family Scolopendridae in this order) and Scutigeromorpha. I am aware of none whatsoever; a number of sources cite a Filipino infant who died from a scolopendromoprh bite on the soft spot of the head, but a few people have researched this claim to substantiate it and found nothing. That said, large Asian tropical scutigeromorphs, large representatives of the Scolopendridae, and larger representatives of other scolopendromorph families can deliver painful bites that can incapacitate people for varying lengths of time depending on factors like age, allergic reactions, etc. Conceivably, if an infant or weak, elderly person in poor health were to be bitten by one of these species, they could die as a result, but this is unlikely to happen to people from their teens to 70s who are strong and in good health. The southeast Asian Scolopendra subspinipes, which has been widely introduced in the tropics by man and is particularly common on Pacific and Caribbean islands, is an especially nasty, aggressive species. As has been documented, it was a scourge to US GIs fighting in WWII in places like Guadalcanal, Bougainville, Tarawa, etc.; it would fall into foxholes, bite the soldiers causing pain and swelling, and force them to visit Sick Bay where medics were trying to save the lives of seriously injured soldiers. The pain and swelling, however, was so great that even these incredibly physically fit, strong, soldiers had to seek medical help; so many sought treatment that this became a real problem until a dentist conceived of injecting bitten areas with novocaine or dental anesthetic. This provided necessary relief and freed the soldiers to return to the front lines to fight again.

Incredibly, a number of people who practice husbandry, particularly in the US, deliberately seek individuals of S. subspinipes to keep live in terrariums in their homes despite its well established reputation for aggression and intensely painful bites. Occasionally, an individual will escape from its enclosure necessitating a scramble to find it before it injures someone in the family; highly flexible organisms, these centipedes can get into just about anywhere, so this is a difficult search and, I imagine, has contributed to a number of marital rifts and divorces.

I have never been bitten by a big scolopendrid and don’t care to find out first hand what happens; I can imagine it and that’s good enough for me. I was bitten once on the thumb by a 2 inch or so species of Scolopocryptops, and it swelled noticeably and throbbed for an hour or so, about like a yellow jacket or wasp sting. This gives me some idea of what the bite of a giant scolopendrid would be like, and I don’t care to learn for myself. It is, however, quite true that centipede bites are MUCH less dangerous to humans than the bites of spiders like the Black Widow and Brown Recluse in the US, Funnel Web spiders in Australia, and other species primarily in the tropics. Centipedes are also MUCH less dangerous to humans than scorpion scorpions, like Centruroides exillicauda, in the southwestern US and adjacent Mexico (Arizona, New Mexico; Sonora & Baja California, Mexico) and the deadly bites of Androctonus spp. (think that’s the right genus) in North Africa and the Sahara Desert Region.

In addition to outright bites with the prehensors or “poison claws,” it is also well established that large scolopendrids can indeed pierce human skin merely by walking on it, and indeed some sort of “solution” gets in these piercings and can also cause pain and swelling. The effects of centipede bites on man are summarized by J.G.E.L. Lewis (1981, The Biology of Centipedes, Cambridge University Press, UK) and he mentiones the case of the Civil War soldier in your attachment, but it is too anecdotal for me to give it credence, especially because I have not read of anything similar in scientific literature, the only sources that I consider credible and dependable. An unscientific, observatory account of a probably uneducated Civil War soldier can hardly be considered credible in my opinion, and I would certainly want additional information about the condition of the bitten soldier and his overall health at the time – was he inebriated or drunk?, did he also have battlefield wounds that would markedly hamper his body’s ability to fight off the addition of additional antigens? The excerpt in your attachment says nothing about such important factors, and if he had bullet wounds, I can imagine the centipede matter being more than his system could fight combined. I have no knowledge of the renal dysfunction matter you provided and wouldn’t want to comment without at least reading the entire article, which I just don’t have time to do. The quoted passage is taken out of context of the entire article, and I would want to see that

Similarly, the quote from the medical textbook on wordpress that you provide, is something that I would want to read in its complete context. Yes, the bite of an 8 in. long Scolopendra heros could result in a life threatening situation for infants and elderly persons who are in poor health; in a weakened state, the body’s need to produce antibodies to fight the introduction of additional antigens could be all it takes to shut down organ systems and cause death. However, it is absolutely false to state or imply unequivocally, as the textbook apparently does, that the bite of S. heros is definitely life threatening. The general public needs to be careful and selective in choosing myriapod websites to peruse; false and inaccurate information on all aspects of myriapods is replete in the cyber world, which is THE major reason I set up my own website (last link in my signature below). I got tired of reading blatantly erroneous statements on websites and decided to set up my own with accurate information to the best of my ability. There is no myriapod specialist at the University of Arkansas (or at Univ. of Iowa, Univ. California at Berkeley, etc., which also have sites), and I suspect that people at such places get most if not all of their information from other websites set up by non-specialists and unknowing people. The Medical Textbook quote you provide also implies that the only the bite of S. heros in the southwestern US is potentially life threatening, certainly to children, and this is also false. Other large bodied scolopendrids besides heros would have to fall into this category, particularly S. subspinipes (see above), and definitely the world’s largest centipede, the foot long S. gigantea in northern South America and offshore islands (Curacao, Aruba, Margarita, Trinidad, etc.). I have examined preserved specimens of this species, and it is an impressive arthropod. I can imagine what its bite must be like and I’m not going to put myself in position of finding out. I would not advise anyone to walk around at night barefoot or in flipflops in dark alleys of cities like Caracas, Maracaibo, Paramaribo, Willemstad, Port of Spain, etc. To be sure, many poor people have been bitten by this large centipede in such areas, but I am not aware of any published reports, particularly in credible, medical or scientific, literature.

Hope this helps. Rowland

Rowland M. Shelley, Ph. D.

first hand account of being bitten
I had an experience with one of these giant black centipedes with the red head and yellow legs. It was in the early 80's and was standing talking to a couple of friends on top of a mountain in SE Oklahoma when I felt something crawling near my knee under my blue jeans. I stupidly swatted it under my jeans and then felt whatever it was now crawling fast past my knee onto my thigh, stinging as it went. I dropped my pants quickly to discover this thing latched onto my thigh with his head held fast and his body wriggling like crazy. I swatted it away and my leg was in severe burning pain. By the time I made it home my entire leg was swollen and red with about 7 individual bite or sting marks lined up from my knee to my thigh. I called the emergency room to see if I should come see them, and they told me as long as I was breathing ok I should be fine. I didn't know at the time about using baking soda paste but by the next day the swelling was down and recovering. I was 27 at the time and I've been stung by wasps, a swarm of yellow jackets, a bumble bee, and a scorpion, red ants, fire ants, and this was by far the most painful of any of those (maybe because of the number of bites by a large insect). The scorpion was probably the next worst, only a single sting in the palm of my hand.

wonderful info!
Thank you Lynette, and thank Dr. Shelley, for this detailed response. I really appreciate him taking the time to explain all that. I was wondering if you could also please include the link to his myriapod website that he refers to in the last paragraph. Oh wait -- I think I found it (

Interesting information
I don't know the answer to your question, but I'm going to email Dr. Rowland Shelley and ask him to comment when he has time.

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