If you're seeking a unique beginner exotic pet that's easy to keep and care for, look no further than the African giant millipede. Millipedes may look a bit like insects, but in fact, they're arthropods—relatives of crabs and shrimp. Millipedes do not actually have 1,000 legs as their name suggests; the average number of legs is 100 (two sets of legs per body segment). Each time they molt, they grow more body segments that are complete with more legs.
A variety of the millipedes that are kept as pets are generally called giant millipedes or giant African millipedes, but there is often confusion over species names since species identification can be quite difficult in living specimens. There is also some dispute over the correct scientific names of some millipedes. While there is some variation in appearance, the giant millipedes are largely similar in their characteristics and care. In general, giant millipedes are easy pets to care for, and they always get a great reaction from visitors.
Common Name: African giant millipede
Scientific Name(s): Archispirostreptus spp., Scaphiostreptus spp.
Adult Size: 7.5 to 11 inches
Life Expectancy: 5 to 10 years
African Giant Millipede Behavior and Temperament
African giant millipedes can be handled safely and are quite docile and slow-moving. They get along fine with others, so you can keep more than one in the same tank. These millipedes do breed quite readily, so if you have males and females together you may discover babies. Male millipedes have modified legs on the seventh body segment called gonopods. These legs look different than the other legs in that they have grasping claws and are often carried tucked up under the body.
While they are generally easy-going, these arthropods can get frightened occasionally. When that happens, they have two main modes of defense: First, they curl into a tight spiral; next, they secrete an irritating liquid from body pores.
From each body segment, a millipede can secrete a yellow-brown fluid; it is called a repugnatorial fluid because it smells and tastes foul. Made of hydrogen cyanide, the fluid will irritate your eyes and mouth, so always wash your hands after handling a millipede. Some people are more sensitive to the liquid than others, and some species are also more toxic than others.
African giant millipedes do very well in captivity as long as they're kept in an environment that suits their needs. As a general rule, a 10- to 15-gallon aquarium provides ample room for a couple of millipedes. Make sure the length of the tank is at least three times the length of the millipede (and the width twice as wide as the millipede is long). Floor space is more important than height. A tight-fitting or weighted lid is a good idea to prevent any of the millipedes from sneaking out.
Specific Substrate Needs
Millipedes like to burrow a bit, so a 3– to 4–inch layer of peat moss or a peat moss/soil mixture (no chemical or fertilizer added) can form the base. This can be covered with some sphagnum moss and pieces of bark to provide additional cover. Leaf litter can also be used, although you may want to freeze it first to kill any insects in it.
Specific Heat and Humidity Needs
There are varied opinions on the appropriate temperatures for giant millipedes. Since millipedes are native to tropical climates, many keepers recommend that the tank should be kept at about 75 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit or even as high as 85 Fahrenheit. To achieve these conditions, you can use an under-tank heater on a thermostat (often sold for reptile keeping) placed under only one-half of the tank.
If placing a heater under the tank warms the substrate too much or dries it out, the heat pad can be affixed to the side or back of the tank. On the other hand, many keepers do not provide supplemental heat at all. If this is the case, make sure your room temperature during the day is at least 72 Fahrenheit, although a slight drop at night should be tolerable. The humidity level in the tank should always be kept at 75 to 80 percent. This can be achieved by keeping the substrate damp with regular misting and checking with a relative humidity meter.
What Do African Giant Millipedes Eat & Drink?
In the wild, African giant millipedes are herbivores that graze on old and decaying (but not rotting) plant material. In captivity, they can be fed a variety of vegetables and fruits, all cut into small pieces. Softer vegetables and fruits are best—try leaf lettuce, cucumber (reported to be a favorite food of millipedes), tomatoes, melon, peaches, and bananas. Never wash food for millipedes in chlorinated town or city tap water, as all invertebrates are particularly sensitive to toxic chlorine and its residuals.
Additionally, keep a shallow dish of clean and fresh chlorine-free water available for your millipedes. Always leave a large stone in the dish as a climb-out ladder to prevent potential drowning.
Provide food once a day, about as much as your pet or pets will consume in that amount of time; foods can be fed in a shallow dish or jar lid. They prefer food that is starting to decay so leaving remainders in the tank for a day or so is actually helpful. It's also a good idea to provide some leaf litter (decaying leaves) they can munch on—freeze the leaves to reduce the number of invisible organisms introduced on the leaves. Occasionally, you can dust some of their food lightly with a vitamin supplement containing calcium to add it to their diet.
Common Health Problems
Even experienced exotic animal veterinarians often have little experience with invertebrate pets. The professionals available to you may not be able to provide care for an African giant millipede, so pet owners must take responsibility for their millipede's health through careful control of food, water, humidity, and housing. Be sure to test the water for traces of chlorine and chloramine using an inexpensive pool chemistry test kit, and always double-check the quality and cleanliness of the food and substrate you are providing.
African giant millipedes can struggle with a few health issues, including—most commonly—mites. This can easily become an issue if you've sourced your pet from an unreliable breeder. While some mites simply live on the millipede and help them to keep their body clean (and don't pose any health risks), while others attach themselves to one location (typically around the head) and stay there like a parasite. They should be removed as quickly and gently as possible.
Your millipede may also encounter fungal infections, which can be caused by a tank environment that is either too high or too low in humidity. Unfortunately, the presence of fungus often indicates a millipede that is already in poor or declining health and can often be fatal.
Purchasing Your African Giant Millipede
While it is perfectly legal to own an African giant millipede as a pet in the U.S., it is not legal to import wild-caught specimens across the U.S. border. When acquired from the wild, they usually carry symbiotic mites, which are harmless to people.
If you are purchasing a pet African giant millipede, you must buy from an American breeder or pet shop which raises them in the U.S. This means it can be tough to find an African giant millipede. Be sure whoever sells you your pet is a legitimate, licensed breeder with positive reviews from past buyers.
Similar Pets to the African Giant Millipede
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Are African giant millipedes hard to take care of?
No—in fact, they're considered among the easiest invertebrates to care for. As long as you maintain the proper environment for them, caring for the millipede should be very easy.
How long do African giant millipedes live as pets?
While their lifespan is between 5 and 7 years in the wild, African giant millipedes that are kept as pets can live up to (or over) 10 years under the right care.
Do African giant millipedes comes in different colors?
No—this specific variety of millipedes are only black, with some dark brown coloration. However, there are other species—such as the Ghana chocolate millipede—that are lighter in color.
Millipedes and Centipedes. University of Georgia Extension.