Home | Field studies and notes | A Millipede Emergency: the Dark Side of a Peaceful Terrarium Invertebrate – Part 1

A Millipede Emergency: the Dark Side of a Peaceful Terrarium Invertebrate – Part 1

Having been chased by a Kodiak bear, confronted by an escaped king cobra and otherwise molested by scores of formidable animals, I felt relatively secure in accepting responsibility for a group of arboreal South American millipedes entrusted to me by colleague about to travel abroad. A primatologist, she had observed capuchin monkeys to rub millipedes over their bodies, and was investigating the situation (I, on the other hand, have always been far more interested in millipedes than monkeys!).

Deadly Millipedes?

A week after her departure, another coworker phoned me at 4 AM, frantically speaking in the rapid fire Spanish typical of her native Venezuela…and which I have great difficulty in grasping at 4 PM, much less 4 AM! Eventually I learned that 3 elderly millipede researchers had passed away recently, and that preliminary evidence indicated that cyanide poisoning, courtesy of the millipedes’ defensive chemicals, was suspected. I was warned against handling the millipedes (which I had been doing for weeks!) or putting them near my face (which I do not do with any creature).

The deaths turned out to be coincidental and unrelated to millipedes, but the incident led to a good deal of research into the defensive chemicals produced by these popular terrarium pets. It seems that millipede toxins are a very unique and complicated group of compounds.

Exploiting Millipede Toxins

Interestingly, a number of species of frogs and monkeys harness these chemical weapons for their own use. Although lagging behind such creatures by a few million years, humans are also getting into the act, and we may soon be putting millipede secretions to medicinal use.

An Amazing Coincidence!!!

The incident I related above, concerning myself and the millipedes, transpired approximately 8-10 years ago. I’m not sure why I decided to write about it today, but I’ve had millipede articles on my mind for some time, and thought this would make a nice introduction to the topic.

After writing this article I searched for a reference to add, for those readers who wished to learn more. You can imagine my shock when I discovered that today’s NY Times (28 June 2009) carries an article about the very same monkeys, people and millipedes involved in my story!!!

To read the entire article, please go to http://www.nytimes.com/2000/12/05/science/05MONK.html?pagewanted=print.

Next time I’ll explore the nature of these defensive weapons and the uses that monkeys, frogs and people are finding for them. Following that we’ll take a look at keeping and breeding millipedes in captivity.

Image referenced from Wikipedia and originally posted by Prashanthns.



  1. avatar

    I have had an African Millipede for about 3 years now. I cannot tell if it’s dead or just in hibernation. It’s rather limp and no movement in the legs. What’s your take?

    • avatar

      Hello Kaua, Frank Indiviglio here.

      Thanks for your interest in our blog.

      Most of the species in the pet trade are native to tropical regions in Africa, and cannot hibernate, although they will slow down if cool. Those that do hibernate, however, are not limp when doing so. Unfortunately, this is usually a sign of severe illness or death.

      If you acquired the millipede as an adult, it could very well be quite old at this point…you’ve obviously kept it well if it has been with you for 3 years.

      Good luck and please keep me posted.

      Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  2. avatar

    Sorry, I discover this blog when I was searching for an answer for my milipede`s status, he`s curled and has no movement, but he can move its legs a little, and spread his substance when I touch it,. I must say that it`s winter, but Í`m a little worried about him. Please answer me, sir. I`m from Mexico

    • avatar

      Hello Nath,

      Unfortunately we know very little about the millipede health care or the illnesses that affect them. You didn’t mention the species you have, but some do become dormant in cool weather, while others die in the fall and a new generation hatches from eggs that have overwintered. Also, the normal lifespan of the different species varies from a single season to 10 or more years.

      Sorry I could not provide a more helpful response, Best regards, Frank

About Frank Indiviglio

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Being born with a deep interest in animals might seem unfortunate for a native Bronxite , but my family encouraged my interest and the menagerie that sprung from it. Jobs with pet stores and importers had me caring for a fantastic assortment of reptiles and amphibians. After a detour as a lawyer, I was hired as a Bronx Zoo animal keeper and was soon caring for gharials, goliath frogs, king cobras and everything in-between. Research has taken me in pursuit of anacondas, Orinoco crocodiles and other animals in locales ranging from Venezuela’s llanos to Tortuguero’s beaches. Now, after 20+ years with the Bronx Zoo, I am a consultant for several zoos and museums. I have spent time in Japan, and often exchange ideas with zoologists there. I have written books on salamanders, geckos and other “herps”, discussed reptile-keeping on television and presented papers at conferences. A Master’s Degree in biology has led to teaching opportunities. My work puts me in contact with thousands of hobbyists keeping an array of pets. Without fail, I have learned much from them and hope, dear readers, that you will be generous in sharing your thoughts on this blog and web site. For a complete biography of my experience click here.
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