Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Feeding Millipedes

Feeding Millipedes

Millipedes feed largely on dead and decaying plant material. They are among the most efficient decomposers in the forest ecosystem, and convert a prodigious amount of leaf litter into organic material that serves to replenish the soil and fertilize the forest growth. In its lifetime, an adult millipede will have eaten at least five times its own weight in leaf litter and decaying vegetation. In the sheer volume of plant material that they convert into usable organic fertilizer, the millipedes are surpassed only by the earthworms.

To help them break down the plant materials they eat, millipedes have commensual protozoans and bacteria living in their digestive tract. These microbes are capable of breaking down the cellulose found in plant tissues and converting them to sugars, which can then be digested and metabolized by the millipede. Hatchling millipedes do not have any protozoans living in their intestines; they obtain them by finding and eating the fecal droppings of their older relatives, a practice known as "coprophagy". These partially-digested droppings also provide a ready source of soft food for the young millipedes. Adult millipedes will also sometimes eat their own droppings, in order to pass them through the digestive tract again and extract all of the partially-digested material that was missed the first time.

The jaws and mouthparts of even the largest millipedes are very weak, and they are not capable of chewing tough plant material. Even the skin of an apple is an impenetrable barrier to them. In the wild, they feed mostly on vegetation that has already partially rotted, softening it enough for the millipede to handle. In captivity, therefore, they need to be fed soft mushy plant material such as over-ripe melon, banana and mushroom. They will also eat fruits and vegetables such as squash and apple, and green leafy vegetables such as kale and leaf lettuce, provided these are cut into slices and allowed to partially rot and soften before being offered as food.

Millipedes should be fed every day, and offered as much food as they will consume in a night. They eat a large amount for their size, and excrete almost constantly (the excreta looks like a little round pellet). An adult African giant millipede can easily consume a piece of melon, a slice of squash and a shred of kale, each the size of a fifty-cent piece, in a night. Iceberg lettuce should be avoided as a staple, as it contains mostly cellulose and water and has very few nutrients. A varied diet consisting of melons, fruits and leafy greens is best.

Millipedes also need a source of calcium to strengthen their exoskeletons. This can be provided by placing a small piece of chalk or clamshell in their tank. Another option is to sprinkle a tiny pinch of calcium powder on their food once a week.

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