Millipedes are arthropods that have two pairs of legs per segment (except for the first segment behind the head which does not have any appendages at all, and the next few which only have one pair of legs). Each segment that has two pairs of legs is a result of two single segments fused together as one. Most millipedes have very elongated cylindrical bodies, although some are flattened dorso-ventrally, while pill millipedes are shorter and can roll into a ball, like a pillbug.
The name “millipede” is a compound word formed from the Latin roots mille (“thousand”) and pes (“foot”). Despite their name, no known millipede has 1,000 legs, although the rare species Illacme plenipes has up to 750. Common species have between 36 and 400 legs. The class contains around 10,000 species in 13 orders and 115 families. The giant African millipede (Archispirostreptus gigas), known as shongololos, is the largest species of millipede.
Millipedes are detritivores and slow moving. Most millipedes eat decaying leaves and other dead plant matter, moisturising the food with secretions and then scraping it in with their jaws. However, they can also be minor garden pests, especially in greenhouses where they can cause severe damage to emergent seedlings. Signs of millipede damage include the stripping of the outer layers of a young plant stem and irregular damage to leaves and plant apices, the very top of a plant.
Millipedes can be easily distinguished from the somewhat similar and related centipedes (Class Chilopoda), which move rapidly, and have a single pair of legs for each body segment.
Centipedes (from Latin prefix centi-, “hundred”, and pes, pedis, “foot”) are arthropods belonging to the class Chilopoda of the subphylum Myriapoda. They are elongated metameric animals with one pair of legs per body segment. Despite the name, centipedes can have a varying number of legs from under 20 to over 300. Centipedes have an odd number of pairs of legs, e.g. 15 or 17 pairs of legs (30 or 34 legs) but never 16 pairs (32 legs). A key trait uniting this group is a pair of venom claws or forcipules formed from a modified first appendage. Centipedes are a predominantly carnivorous taxon.:168
Centipedes normally have a drab coloration combining shades of brown and red. Cavernicolous (cave-dwelling) and subterranean species may lack pigmentation and many tropical scolopendromorphs have bright aposematic colours. Size can range from a few millimetres in the smaller lithobiomorphs and geophilomorphs to about 30 cm (12 in) in the largest scolopendromorphs. Centipedes can be found in a wide variety of environments.
Worldwide there are estimated to be 8,000 species of centipede, of which 3,000 have been described. Centipedes have a wide geographical range, reaching beyond the Arctic Circle. Centipedes are found in an array of terrestrial habitats from tropical rainforests to deserts. Within these habitats centipedes require a moist micro-habitat because they lack the waxy cuticle of insects and arachnids, and so lose water rapidly through the skin. Accordingly, they are found in soil and leaf litter, under stones and dead wood, and inside logs. Centipedes are among the largest terrestrial invertebrate predators and often contribute significantly to the invertebrate predatory biomass in terrestrial ecosystems