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: 7 to 10 years
African Giant Millipede Behavior and Temperament
African giant millipedes can be handled 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. 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 will secrete a yellow-brown fluid; it is called a repungnatorial 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.
Housing the African Giant Millipede
African giant millipedes do very well in captivity as long as they are 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.
Millipedes like to burrow a bit, so a good layer (3 to 4 inches) 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. Damp (not wet) leaf litter can also be used, although you may want to freeze it first to kill any insects in it.
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 (24 to 27 Celsius) or even as high as 85 Fahrenheit (30 Celsius). Use an under-tank heater on a thermostat (as 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 part of the 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 (22 Celsius), 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.
Food and Water
In the wild, giant millipedes are herbivores that graze old and decaying (but not rotting) plant material. In captivity, they can be fed a variety of vegetables and fruits, 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.
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 is 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. Dust only some of the food lightly with a vitamin supplement containing calcium to add it to the diet.
Common Health Issues
Even exotic animal veterinarians have little experience with invertebrate pets. They will 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 if your millipede exhibits:
- Loss of appetite
- Fungus on its carapace (outer shell)
- Dull shell rather than shiny shell
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.
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