They lurk in dark corners of your home and run with uncanny speed, and for many people they’re the stuff of nightmares – would you be able to ID a house centipede?
Common name: House centipede, domestic quickfoot
Scientific name: Family Scutigeridae. The two species most often encountered in Australia are Scutigera coleoptrata, and Allothereua maculata.
Description: House centipedes differ from other centipedes in having comparatively short bodies, 15 pairs of very long legs (each pair longer than the ones in front), very long slender antennae, and a pair of well-developed, sensitive, compound eyes. Newly-hatched house centipedes only have 4 pairs of legs, and gain more body segments and legs with each molt. They are long lived (up to 7 years) and renowned for their speed, being capable of moving at up to 40 cm/s.
Geographic distribution: Scutigera coleoptrata is native to Spain and other parts of the Mediterranean but is now found in many parts of the world, most often in and around human dwellings. Allothereua maculata is native to Australia, and may be found inside houses, but is more common outside and in wooded areas.
Habitat: House centipedes require humidity to survive as they cannot close their spiracles to prevent water loss, and if inside a house are most likely to hide in bathrooms, basements, and other dark, cool areas. Outside, they may reside in rock piles, stacks of firewood or compost bins.
They live exclusively on smaller invertebrates, and are very useful predators of household pests including cockroaches, spiders, silverfish, flies, and earwigs. They usually hunt at night, and pursue and enfold their prey in their many legs or bite to envenomate then retreat to let the venom take effect if the target is dangerous.
Pest status: The combination of alarming appearance and high speed movement may make house centipedes scary, but they are only mildly venomous. They are highly unlikely to bite, and are much more likely to drop a leg or two if threatened, then flee if possible. Their bite is certainly no worse than a bee sting, but like a bee sting if you are susceptible to allergic reactions, you should seek medical advice.
Treatment: No treatment required. They can be discouraged by reducing sources of humidity, sealing any cracks in the walls, and eliminating other pests from the house. They are quite vulnerable to glue traps.
Daniel Heald, Technician and Entomologist