Myriapoda (Including Centipedes and Millipedes)


The Myriapoda comprises four classes of terrestrial arthropods: Chilopoda or centipedes, Diplopoda or millipedes, Symphyla and Pauropoda. Myriapods are generally found in soil and litter and have a worldwide distribution. Approximately 13 000 species are known. Myriapods share a five‐ or six‐segmented head, a single pair of antennae, uniramous (unbranched) limbs and an elongate trunk without obvious tagmatisation. The Chilopoda and Diplopoda are the largest classes, numbering respectively approximately 3000 and 10 000 described species. Centipedes are carnivorous and share poison claws derived from the first pair of trunk limbs, whereas the other classes are primarily detritivores and may be significant contributors to litter breakdown and nutrient turnover. Recent molecular phylogenetic studies indicate that the Myriapoda comprise a monophyletic group and a sister taxon to the Pancrustacea (Crustacea and Insecta). They were among the first animals to colonise land.

Key Concepts:

  • Myriapoda comprise four classes of terrestrial arthropods: Chilopoda (centipedes), Diplopoda (millipedes), Symphyla and Pauropoda.

  • Centipedes are carnivorous, possessing unique poison claws on the first trunk (post head) segment.

  • Millipedes are characterised by diplosegments – pairs of trunk segments sharing a single tergal plate.

  • Millipedes, symphylans and pauropods are detritivores, occurring primarily in soils and leaf litter.

  • Myriapods have separate sexes (gonochoristic), and sperm transfer generally involves the exchange of one or more spermatophores via specialised appendages.

  • Molecular phylogenetic evidence supports monophyly of the Myriapoda, with the Myriapoda probably comprising a sister taxon to the Pancrustacea (Crustacea and Insecta).

  • Both centipedes and millipedes have fossil records dating back to the mid‐upper Silurian (ca. 420 mya) and probably colonised land prior to insects.

  • Myriapods and insects share several derived traits representing adaptations to land: tracheal systems, predominantly uniramous (unbranched) limbs and excretory Malpighian tubules opening into the hindgut.

Keywords: centipede; millipede; pauropod; symphylan; arthropod

Figure 1.

Representatives of the four orders of centipedes (Chilopoda). Clockwise from upper left: Cryptops sp. (Scolopendromorpha); Necrophleophagus sp. (Geophilomorpha); Scutigera coleoptrata (Scutigeromorpha); Lithobius variegatus (Lithobiomorpha). Bar, 10 mm.

Figure 2.

Scolopendra polymorpha, a large (ca. 10 cm) scolopendromorph centipede common in the southwestern United States.

Figure 3.

Ecomorphological types in millipedes: above left, Glomeris marginata (a ‘roller’); above right, Cylindrioulus sp. (a ‘bulldozer’); below right, Polydesmus sp. (a ‘wedger’); below left Polyxenus lagurus (Penicillata) with ultrastructural details of a dorsal spine, and the ‘grapple’ tip of a defensive caudal spine.

Figure 4.

Hiltonius pulchrus, a large spirobolid millipede reaching approximately 80 mm in length and native to the coastal sage scrub and chaparral of Southern California.

Figure 5.

Representative symphylan (left) and pauropod (right).

Figure 6.

Cladogram showing a phylogeny of the Myriapoda and their relationships to other arthropods. Numbers mark the first appearance in evolutionary time of the following characters; note convergent events in the Myriapoda and Insecta: (1) Chitinous cuticle, regulation of moulting cycle by means of steroid ecdysones; union of the haemal and coelomic cavities to form a single open haemocoel. (2) Compound eye; biramous (or multiramous) limbs originally serving in filter or deposit feeding. (3) Six‐segmented head with two pre‐oral segments bearing antennae 1 and 2, and four post‐oral segments bearing the labrum, mandibles, and the first and second maxillae; ultrastructural details of the compound eye. (4) Reduction of accessory limb branches to create a uniramous limb; terrestriality. (5) Segmental tracheal system; Malpighian tubules; loss of mandibular palp; loss of second antenna. (6) Loss of midgut diverticula; ecdysis involving a lateral transverse split behind the head capsule; details of mandibular and limb articulations. (7) Ventral migration of gonads (below gut). (8) Loss of second maxillae on fifth head segment, which is now distinct, forming the collum; gonads opening on third trunk segment. (9) Hexapodous adult; two pairs of wings serving in flight (in Pterygota). (Adapted from Giribet et al., ; Budd and Telford, ; Regier et al., ; and others).



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Further Reading

Blower JG (1965) Millipedes: Synopses of the British Fauna No. 35. Shrewsbury: Field Studies Council.

Boudreaux HB (1979) Arthropod Phylogeny with Special Reference to Insects. New York: Wiley.

Camatini M (ed.) (1979) Myriapod Biology. London: Academic Press.

Eason EH (1964) Centipedes of the British Isles. London: Warne.

Edney EB (1977) Water Balance in Land Arthropods. Berlin: Springer‐Verlag.

Hadley NF (1994) Water Relations of Terrestrial Arthropods. San Diego: Academic Press.

Lewis JGE (1981) The Biology of Centipedes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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Wright, Jonathan C(Oct 2012) Myriapoda (Including Centipedes and Millipedes). In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0001607.pub3]