I received a telephone call recently from a concerned young lady who stated that a centipede crawled across her while she was in bed. She said her entire body elevated itself 3 feet when she saw the uninvited guest drop to the mattress from her shoulder. As she watched in sheer terror, the centipede crawled rapidly to the edge of the mattress and fell to the floor.
The lady climbed out of bed, grabbed her house slipper, dropped to her knees, and stomped the critter several times. But, because the floor was covered with a carpet, each stomp momentarily stopped the centipede. Then, it continued on its way. Finally, the victim of her pursuit ran to the tiled kitchen floor where it met its demise.
I said, “And, your worries were over.”
She commented, “Not true. I understand centipedes run around in pairs.”
I brought her back to a calm state when I explained that centipedes are together only for a brief time, and that is during mating.
Encounters with centipedes do not occur often even among people who reside in southwestern desert and grassland regions where centipedes are common, unless those people live in rural areas or where new houses are being built.
But, no one can exceed the experiences of homesteaders during the depression, drought, and dust bowl days of the 1930s. Timothy Egan in his book titled, “The Hard Time,” stated that windblown, dust ridden dugouts were littered with centipedes.
Despite their unattractive features and fear centipedes, bring forth to people, centipedes are not aggressive. They pinch, not bite, when squeezed accidentally or picked up.
They pinch by bringing the tip of their two front appendages together close enough to penetrate the flesh of the victim. Then, venom is injected into the wound from the tip of the appendage.
The effect of the venom is not fatal, but the site of injection is painful and swelling, chills, and fever may result. References indicate that the site of penetration should be washed with soap and water, and an antiseptic should be applied to the wound. A tetanus injection is highly recommended.
If there is concern, one should seek medical attention, especially if children or individuals with allergies toward venoms are involved.
A single pinch from a centipede is painful, but can you imagine the pain if a certain “Old West” story were true? The tale stated that each of the many legs of the centipede has a venom-producing claw, not just the front pair. As a result, all the claws of the centipede would create a parallel trail of welt-producing injection sites as the centipede walks across bare skin.
Obviously that is not true, but a pinch might leave nonvenomous claw marks on a victim who has extremely sensitive skin.
Desert biologist Tony Gennaro of Portales writes a monthly column on creatures of the Southwest. Contact him at: