African Giant Millipedes

Latin Name Archispirostreptus gigas Order: Spirostreptida      Family: Spirostreptidae

Overview

Giant African Millipedes are commonly kept and bred in zoos and are a popular beginner level animal for handling and programming. These are the largest of the millipede species. Known for their “thousand” legs, it is easy to educate people on all the misconceptions about them. They thrive in their environment and are not currently a species of concern, but are good for discussion about the ecosystem in which they play a vital role in.

Natural History Information

Range and Habitat

Found in subtropical rainforests of Africa. Mostly found on the rainforest floor, commonly burrowing in or around rotting wood.

Longevity

5 to 7 years

Ecosystem Role

These millipedes are known as detritivores, meaning that they feed on dead or decaying matter (trees, plants, wood). Once digested, the fecal matter from the millipedes contains a variety of nutrients that then acts as new soil for the environment.

Husbandry Information

Housing Requirements

Life Cycle Natural History Relevant Information

  • Can be housed in a larger plastic container or glass terrarium with lid
    • Blank Park Zoo: housed in 20 gallon (long) glass terrarium with mesh lid
    • Akron Zoo: Housed in large rubbermaid tote with holes drilled into the lid
    • Santa Ana Zoo: large, weather tight storage totes with drilled holes covered with mesh for ventilation
    • Columbian Park Zoo: houses two separate breeding colonies and a separate Education Program colony (only males) in large plastic tubs with holes drilled for ventilation 
    • North Carolina Zoo: houses two separate colonies so that they can alter days of the week in which they can do programming
  • They are a nocturnal species
  • Females lay the eggs below the surface
    • If changing substrate, you will need to sift through for eggs
  • If changing substrate, it is also important to keep some of the old substrate for the juveniles as they feed on the fecal matter of the adults until they are big enough to start eating produce
  • Depending on how many juveniles you have, you may need to add more substrate or create a separate enclosure once they start to get bigger to avoid overpopulation in your colony

Habitat

Temperature, Humidity, Light Cycles

  • Temperature: 75-85 degrees F during the day, 70-80 degrees F during the night
  • Humidity: 70-80%
  • Light: Natural room lighting with normal day/night light cycle

Akron Zoo

Columbian Park Zoo

Blank Park Zoo

Substrate

  • Substrate options: 
    • Blank Park Zoo: Sphagnum peat moss moistened with dechlorinated water
    • Akron Zoo: Peat Moss mixed with carbon filtered water
    • Santa Ana Zoo: Sphagnum peat moss
    • North Carolina Zoo: Cocofiber
  • Substrate should be at least 6 inches deep, but recommended to be closer to 8-12 inches if you are encouraging breeding
    • Substrate should only be changed out 2-3 times per year to avoid disrupting any breeding, egg laying, or potential of injuring any of the juveniles

Diet Requirements

Diet in the Wild

  • These millipedes are detritivores. They feed on dead or decaying matter within their habitat such as leaves, wood, and produce.
  • In the wild, African giant millipedes are decomposers and will eat rotting leaf litter and fruits and vegetables they find lying on the ground.
  • Neonate millipedes are said to be coprophagous, eating the dung of the adults. This helps them in two ways: first, the dung is like pre-digested food, so it is easier for the young millipedes to eat it. Second, this behaviors helps seed the bacteria that aids in the digestion process.

Diet under Human Care

  • In captivity, they are traditionally fed lettuce, apples, potatoes, oranges, cucumbers and grapes. However, a different approach is suggested by Orin McGonigle in his book, Giant Millipedes: An Enthusiasts Handbook. This approach emphasizes the creation of substrate that is the primary food source with only once or biweekly presentation of supplemental food items. The food substrate is composed of a mix of approximately 25% high quality compost, 25% cocofiber and 50% crushed leaf litter. This layer needs to be approximately 6 inches deep and then topped with a 2 inch layer of crushed leaf litter (oak is especially good, limit pine needles) and rotting wood. Rotting wood should be from non-pine trees if possible and soft enough to dig into with a fingernail. All substrates should be sterilized by drying in the oven or heating for several minutes in a microwave (make sure items are moist/wet before microwaving otherwise you could ignite the materials). Add in chalk and/or a vitamin/mineral supplement and only present supplemental foods once weekly to start and scale back feedings if all the food is not consumed vigorously. Keep the substrate moist, not sopping wet and add more substrate/food layer monthly. The Philadelphia Zoo is currently testing this new method since they have not yet been successful in getting a breeding colony established and will update this wiki with results of the trial. UPDATE – there are now confirmed baby millipedes in the colonies that have been housed using this method so it appears to be successful.
  • Rotation of produce and greens 
    • Blank Park Zoo: Produce replaced as needed (about 3 times per week). Variety of sweet potato, carrot, cucumbers, apple, pear, romaine leaves.
    • Akron Zoo: Produce is replaced MWF. Variety of greens, apples, sweet potato. Diet is dusted with calcium powder.
    • Santa Ana Zoo: Variety of spinach, romaine, carrots, and sliced yams, broccoli, apple, banana peel
    • Columbian Park Zoo: Diet is given MWF. Rotation of green peppers, squash, green beans, pumpkin, peas, sweet potato, carrots, collard greens, grape leaves, mustard greens, turnip greens. Diet is dusted with calcium powder. 
    • North Carolina Zoo: Produce is switched out once weekly. Rotation of sweet potato, apples, lettuce, cucumber, mushrooms, oak leaves. Diet is dusted with calcium powder.

Veterinary Concerns

  • Mites are frequently seen on millipedes and it is not yet known if the mites are commensal or parasitic. The best current rule of thumb is to not let get mite populations get too large. Mites can be controlled by substrate sterilization and substrate changes as needed.
  • Per discussion online, Ray Mendez has noted that you must vigorously protect these millipedes from coffin (phorid) flies. They look somewhat like fruit flies but have a humped back and tend to walk more than fly. They have caused damage and possibly death by laying eggs in the body of the millipede which hatch out into maggots and cause a long slow decline and subsequent death of the millipede. Vigor around fly control is therefore recommended.

Enrichment & Training

Enrichment

Behavioral Relevant Information

  • Millipedes are a burrowing species
  • They are typically found near/under rotting wood and leaf litter

 Environmental Enrichment

  • Sticks, logs, pieces of bark

Behavioral Enrichment

  • Hides that can be buried in the substrate to create burrows or provide shelter above the substrate

Other

Social Housing/Colony Management

  • Millipedes will breed opportunistically 
    • Male and female will wrap/wind around each other for breeding 
  • Females will bury themselves and lay their eggs below the surface
    • Can lay hundreds of eggs at a time
  • Eggs hatch after about 3 months
  • Once they hatch, there is no parental care
  • Newly hatched young will often times eat fecal matter from the adults and transition to the produce as they get bigger
  • They are  very small (only a couple segments long) and white in color when first hatched
  • Slowly turn from white to the dark brown/black color with each molt over the first couple years
  • Depending on how many juveniles you have, you may need to add more substrate or create a separate enclosure once they start to get bigger to avoid overpopulation in your colony
  • They reach maturity around 3 years of age
  • Blank Park Zoo: all individuals are housed together in same terrarium. After a clutch is laid and the juveniles get bigger, may separate out the juveniles into a second terrarium to provide additional space. 
  • Columbian Park Zoo: Houses three separate colonies – 2 separate breeding colonies and 1 Education Program colony
  • Santa Ana Zoo: typically manages their colony at around 50 individuals and divides them into two bins (25 in each)
  • Philadelphia Zoo: We only dig up the bins twice per year for colony checks/counts; you can crush babies accidentally if you disturb things too much.

Individual Identification

  • Males have a set of gonopods in place of legs, usually located on the 7th segment
  • At Hogle Zoo: We have been fairly unsuccessful in finding something that works well with millipedes (since they are in a higher humidity environment and are underground, things rub off).  We purchased some pens that someone recommended for bees, but those marks flaked off after the first day.  These are the pens we used without success: Queen Marking Pen

Programmatic Information

Messaging Themes

  • Invertebrates are a lot like you (and so deserve respect!) Their exoskeleton is made of keratin, just like human fingernails and hair. They have muscles, nerves and a beating heart. They have complex behaviors.
  • Importance of decomposers. Importance of all of the “little animals” to the web of life and the balance of nature.
  • They come from the rainforests of Africa where they are thriving. However, there are several rainforests and other species of animals that are suffering due to habitat destruction and illegal wildlife trade. 
  • Being that they are detritivores, they play an important role within their ecosystem. They clean up rotten and decaying matter and in turn, their waste becomes new soil for the rainforest. 
  • These millipedes are nocturnal animals, coming out to explore and search for food at night. 
  • They are invertebrates, containing an exoskeleton made of keratin. Inside, they have organs and muscles just like any other animal and human does.  
    • They do not have lungs. Instead, they breathe through little holes called spiracles that are located all over their exoskeleton.

Threats and Conservation Status

  • Common, Least Concern

Did you know…

  • Despite their name “milli” associating them with having 1,000 legs, they typically only have around 300 legs once fully grown.
    • They have 4 legs per body segment; two on each side compared to centipedes that have 2 legs per segment.
    • Each time they molt, they grow another segment.
  • They are the largest of the 10,000 different millipede species, getting up to 12 inches long at full growth. 
  • They are not venomous. Their first defense is to coil up tightly into a spiral. They may also secrete a foul smelling and tasting fluid that deters predators. This fluid is not typically a threat to humans, but can be irritating to people with sensitive skin.

Handling & Presentation Tips

  • Entry level animal handling

Use Guidelines

  • People with sensitive skin should avoid handling unless wearing gloves. The millipedes can secrete a toxin if stressed and can irritate sensitive skin.
  • Millipedes should be handled over smooth, monolithic surfaces (concrete, tile, table, tarp).
  • Blank Park Zoo: 
    • Individuals are only handled if they are on top of the substrate, do not dig individuals up if buried
    • Can be presented in hand or in a terrarium. 
    • If millipede secretes fluid, individual must be returned to carrier/enclosure as soon as possible
    • Individuals should not be held for more than 20 minutes at a time, no time limit if in terrarium.
  • Virginia Zoo
    • Time limit if in hand is no more than 30 minutes. No time restriction if being presented in a travel box.
  • North Carolina Zoo: 
    • Can do 3 programs per day, 7 days per week
    • Has two separate colonies: one colony can do programs MWF and the other colony can do programs TuThSa. Either colony can be used on Sundays. This helps to ensure no millipedes are being overused.

Public Contact and Interaction Guidelines

  • People with skin sensitivities should be aware that millipedes can secrete a liquid that can be irritating. This also may be a sign that the animal is stressed so it may be good to discontinue handling with that particular animal if that occurs.
  • Blank Park Zoo: may allow touching if audience number is below 30
    • 1-finger touch rule down the individual’s back
  • Virginia Zoo: public may touch with one finger along back
  • Akron Zoo: guests may touch if the audience number is below 50 
  • Columbian Park Zoo: millipede is held in hand to show audience how they move, but placed back in travel box to walk through audience for a closer look. Guests may touch if audience number is below 30. Guests may touch with two fingers along its back. 
  • North Carolina Zoo: guests are not allowed to touch at any time
  • Brandywine Zoo:
    • Guests may touch with one or two fingers on the the back of the millipede.
    • They should not be allowed to touch the animal’s face or antennae.
    • Guests should be immediately instructed to wash hands or use hand sanitizer where hand washing is not available.

Transportation Tips

See: Temperature and Transport: Welfare Implications for Ambassador Ectotherms from AASAG Newsletter, Dec. 2016

  • Handling millipedes seems to shorten their lifespan so plan on rotating animals used for programs so no specific animal is handled excessively. You can temporarily mark millipedes for individual identification with a dot of nail polish. This will only last until the next molt though so it is not a long term method. To allow the dot time to dry have the millipede walk around on your hand. Alternatively, you set up different tanks of millipedes and only use animals from certain tanks on certain days of the week in order to even out handling across multiple animals.
  • Millipedes cannot survive falls or drops, even from short distances of a few inches. They will show no outward signs of injury other than a slow death so be vigilant in training handlers to guard against this.

Crating Techniques

  • Blank Park Zoo
    • Only travel with one individual at a time
    • Transported in plastic container with clasping lid
    • No substrate in the carrier. Use paper towel in bottom of the carrier misted with dechlorinated water. 
    • Individual carrier is transported in a cooler for secondary containment
    • May use towel to provide cushion so that carrier does not slide around in cooler
  • Santa Ana Zoo
    • May take 3 millipedes at one time, only select millipedes that are on top of the soil
    • Dampened paper towel for substrate in carrier
  • Akron Zoo
    • If being presented in hand: Use designated invertebrate cooler and a dampened paper towel for substrate in cooler
    • If being presented in travel box: use dampened paper towel in travel box for substrate and then the travel box is placed inside a cooler for transport
  • Virginia Zoo
    • May take multiple millipedes at a time
    • Use dampened paper towel for substrate
    • Carrier is placed in a cooler for transport
  • Brandywine Zoo
    • Millipedes are transported in Kritter Keeper lined with about 1″ of substrate from their enclosure as well as cover, such as leaf litter, cork bark, sphagnum moss, or other items they can “hide” under. Their carrier is misted well with aged water for transport.
Millipede travel necessities (Photo: North Carolina Zoo)

Temperature Guidelines

  • Blank Park Zoo 
    • Outdoor handling temperatures 70-90 degrees F.
    • Warm water bottle in cooler if temperatures are below 60 degrees F. 
    • Cold water bottle in cooler if temperatures are above 90 degrees F.
  • Virginia Zoo
    • 60-90 degrees F with no restrictions
    • Heat pack is provided if temperature is below 50 degrees and transported in an enclosed vehicle or 
    • Heat pack is provided if temperature is below 60 degrees and being transported on a cart or by hand
  • Akron Zoo
    • Outdoor handling temperatures 65-85 degrees F
    • Heat discs are provided in the secondary containers when temperatures are below 65 degrees
  • North Carolina Zoo
    • Outdoor handling temperatures 55-90 degrees F

Acquisition Information

Very commonly kept and bred in captivity.

See Invertebrate Acquisitions document for list of sources and testimonials.

Per the AASAG survey in 2020, over 30 facilities currently have Giant African Millipedes in their collections.

USDA has an embargo on Giant African millipede imports, so it is difficult to acquire this species in the United States. A number of institutions are trying to captive breed this species due to this difficulty. A plant pest permit is required to house this species in your collection.

Seneca Park Zoo has had success purchasing millipedes from Wards Natural Science in Rochester, NY. They are a national supplier of science materials for schools, so they will ship across the country if need be. Their link is: http://wardsci.com/search.asp?t=ss&ss=Millipede&x=20&y=10 Wards does not actually sell Giant African millipedes; they supply a similar species (Thyrophygus ssp. or similar) that can be used in the same programs. Not all of Wards millipedes are captive-bred.

To hold this species, an institution must apply for a USDA APHIS plant pest permit, or amend an established permit to include this species. Go to http://www.aphis.usda.gov/permits/ppq_epermits.shtml for more information.

Breeding Facilities

  • Blank Park Zoo
  • Santa Ana Zoo
  • Akron Zoo
  • Columbian Park Zoo

Resources

IC contact – list Maureen O’Keefe‘s email to contact to find out who their IC is

Contributors and Citations

  • Brandywine Zoo
  • Hogle Zoo
  • The Philadelphia Zoo
  • Blank Park Zoo
  • Akron Zoo
  • Santa Ana Zoo
  • Columbian Park Zoo
  • North Carolina Zoo
  • Virginia Zoo

Comments from the Rating System

  • Buffalo Zoo: No-touch and must be displayed in carrier. Some ‘wow’ factor for size.
  • Henry Vilas Zoo: FANTASTIC ed. animal!, can be touched, impressive
  • Lee Richardson Zoo: have not had for a few years after loss of our last individuals. Difficult to obtain.
  • Maryland Zoo in Baltimore: We have tried this species several times. Once they get to a suitable size for programming and presentation, they are very old and die off. We have eliminated them from our future collection plan.
  • Roger Williams Park Zoo: Sensitive – considerations in handling
  • Zoo New England, Stone Zoo: Another great invertebrate for beginning handlers!

Photographs

Photo Credit: Brandywine Zoo, Akron Zoo, Blank Park Zoo, North Carolina Zoo, Columbian Park Zoo

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