Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Housing a Centipede

Housing a Centipede

Housing for a captive centipede is not a complicated or expensive affair. Any pet shop will have all of the materials needed to keep a centipede happy and healthy.

An ordinary tropical fish aquarium makes a good home for any of the tropical centipedes. A five gallon aquarium will be suitable for a younger specimen, while a ten gallon aquarium provides adequate space for even the largest of the giant centipedes. As a rough rule of thumb, you will want a tank that is at least as wide as your centipede is long, and at least one and a half times as long as the length of the centipede

Fish tanks have several advantages -- they are easily obtained and inexpensive. They hold humidity well and make it easy to keep your centipede's environment properly damp. They can be made secure and virtually escape-proof. And they resist scratching and offer a good view of your pet. Since your centipede tank will not contain any water, it is still suitable even if it leaks at the seams or has a cracked bottom. Used leaky aquariums can often be found at garage sales, or your local pet shop may have some that they want to get rid of.

Your centipede's cage will need a tight-fitting lid to prevent escapes. Centipedes are not capable of climbing up the smooth glass or plastic sides of an aquarium, but they can climb up the corners using the bead of silicone glue that holds the aquarium together. They can also make their way up along any plants, branches or electrical cords that are placed inside the tank.

The commercial fluourescent hoods that are used with fish tanks are not suitable for a centipede tank. They cannot be secured and offer many gaps and cracks that the centipede can wedge its flat body underneath, allowing an easy avenue of escape. Your centipede is an accomplished escape artist, and if there is any way out of its tank it will eventually find it: the last thing you want is a ten inch long aggressive venomous centipede loose somewhere in your house. The cage must be provided with a secure screen lid.

There are a number of different types of screen lid available for aquariums. The best kind for centipedes are the screen mesh lids with the metal clips to hold them on tightly. Make sure the wire mesh is tight enough to prevent the centipede from squeezing through the holes. Note that the sharp wires used in these cages do present a potential danger to the centipede, which can sometimes cut its exoskeleton on these wires and bleed to death.

Another type of aquarium top uses a perforated metal sheet with two turning latches to hold it on. This type is not suitable for keeping centipedes---the metal is too flexible in the middle and a determined centipede will be able to wedge its head between the lid and the aquarium rim and escape.

The best option for housing a pet centipede is one of the clear plastic sweater boxes that can be found in any department store. These come in a variety of different sizes, and all have their own lids that snap on securely. They are also lightweight and take up a bit less room than an aquarium. Another advantage of the sweater boxes, particularly if you will be keeping a number of invertebrate pets, is that they can be securely stacked atop one another to put a large number of cages in the smallest possible area. One disadvantage of the sweater box, however, is that the plastic isn't as clear as glass, which may make your pet difficult to see. Another disadvantage is that large centipedes may be able to reach up and pull themselves over the edge of the tank, presenting a potential escape danger while you are cleaning the tank or moving the centipede. For safety's sake, the cage should be at least as deep as the centipede is long.

Sweater boxes must be modified a bit before they make a suitable home for your centipede. You will need to drill a number of airholes for ventilation, along the top and bottom edges all around the box. This can be done with a hand drill, or the holes can be carefully melted through with a heated screwdriver or soldering tool. The holes should be no larger than half the body width (not the legspan) of the centipede, to prevent escapes. If your centipede cage does not have adequate ventiliation, the warm damp conditions will encourage mold and fungus growth that will ruin the cage and present a danger to your centipede. Also, if the humidity level is too high, it will interfere with the diffusion of air into the trachea.

The final option for housing your centipede is one of the plastic "critter cages" that can be found in pet stores. These are available in a variety of sizes. Make sure you get a model that has little latches to hold the lid on securely---the cheaper versions have flimsy snap-on lids that often come apart whenever the cage is picked up by the handle.

Whichever type of cage you choose, there is one rule that you absolutely must follow when housing centipedes---all centipedes are cannibals, and all will happily eat any other arthropod that you place in its cage, including members of their own species. All of your pet centipedes will need to be housed individually in its own cage. If you place two of them together, you will sooner or later end up with one (very well fed) centipede.


Centipedes, unlike many arthropods, do not have a waxy waterproof outer layer on their cuticle and are thus very susceptible to drying out. In captivity, they need warm humid conditions. The substrate in their cage must be damp and provide places for hiding. If it is too damp, however, the water will plug the centipede's breathing spiracles and cause it distress. If you go to the woods, move aside a bit of leaf litter and stick your finger into the exposed black soil, that is about how damp the substrate in your terrarium should be.

The best substance to line a centipede cage with is a 50-50 mixture of sterilized potting soil and peat moss, which can be found at any garden store. Line the bottom of the tank with about four inches of this mixture, and cover it with a thin layer of leaf litter or terrarium moss. As it dries out, the substrate will need to be periodically misted again. It is best to heavily mist just a corner of the terrarium and mist the rest just enough to keep it damp, allowing the centipede to choose the moisture level it wants. If you begin to see fuzzy white patches that look like cotton, it is fungus and it means that you are spraying the tank too much and making it too damp, or that there is not enough airflow and venitilation.

Hiding Spots

Centipedes are nocturnal and hide during the day, emerging at night to hunt for food. Your centipede will need a secure place where it can sleep during the day. This shelter is also important for conserving water -- by pressing its body against the walls of a damp shelter, the centipede can help conserve body moisture.

A suitable shelter can be made by using aquarium silicone to cement a number of flat rocks together to form a shallow cave. An overturned piece of bark is also acceptable. The inside of the shelter should have just enough space for the centipede to curl up with its body touching all the walls at the same time. Mist the underside of the shelter occasionally to keep it damp inside.

The larger adult tropical centipedes are often secure enough that they will spend a large amount of time outside of their hiding spot, and may spend the day coiled up asleep in a corner of the tank.


The large scolopendromorphs found in the pet trade are all tropical or desert animals and need warm conditions. Daytime temperatures of 80-82 degrees are suitable. Since this is much warmer than conditions found inside most homes, some source of supplemental heat will probably be needed for the centipede.

Some keepers use an incandescent light bulb, placed outside the screen lid and focused insdie the tank, to warm the interior of the cage. There are several potential problems with this method, however. It tends to dry the cage out rapidly, which can be lethal for moisture-loving centipedes. The bright harsh lights also cause undue stress, since these animals prefer subdued lighting. If you plan to use a light bulb as a source of heat, you should use a red or blue bulb (centipedes cannot see these wavelengths and will act as if it were dark), and you will need to mist the cage often to keep the substrate damp. It should be noted that light bulbs cannot be used as a source of heat if your centipede is being housed in a plastic sweater box.

Another option for heating is the undertank heater commonly used for lizards and other small reptiles. These look like flat pads that stick onto the bottom of the cage and are heated electrically. The heat diffuses through the substrate to produce warm temperatures. They are the best method of heating a sweater box type of cage. The heater should be placed so it covers about one fourth of the bottom surface, at one end of the cage. Place shelters both at the warm end and at the cool side, so the centipede can move securely from warm to cool as it wishes.

Undertank heaters also present some safety problems, however. They tend to make the bottom of the substrate warmer and drier than the top, an unnatural condition. In the wild, centipedes escape from conditions that are too warm and dry by digging deeper into the soil. In a cage using an undertank heater, they will stick to this inborn behavior, even though in this situation burrowing more deeply actually exposes them to even more heat and dryness. You will need to mist the cage often to keep the top layer damp.


Tropical centipedes are creatures of the rainforest floor, where they lurk among the leaf litter and debris. The thick canopy of leaves filters out most of the sunlight, and as a result the forest floor is a dim and unlit place even during the height of the day.

In captivity, centipedes prefer subdued lighting. Usually, the ambient light levels inside your house will be sufficient. No lighting is needed for the cage itself.

If you use an incandescent light bulb as a heat source, make sure it is colored blue or red. These wavelengths cannot be seen by centipedes, and they will act as if it were dark. This is also useful if you want to observe your centipede during its nocturnal activities.


Your centipede should be provided with a large flat water dish for drinking. The evaporation of water from the dish will also help maintain the proper humidity level in the tank. Centipedes cannot swim, so you will need to fill the water dish with pebbles to prevent the centipede from falling in and drowning. Make sure the sides of the dish are low enough for the centipede to climb out easily.

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