The History, Care, and Breeding of the African Giant Millipede
In 1842 naturalist Wilhelm C.H. Peters (1815-1883) travelled from Berlin to Mozambique on a scientific voyage of discovery. Peters had studied natural history and medicine in Copenhagen, had recently completed his dissertation on the morphology of turtle shells with famed herpetologist Johannes Müller in Berlin, and appears to have been well suited for exploration. In Mozambique, Peters travelled the coastal region before following the Zambesi river well into the interior; and he was astonishingly successful during his voyage. Over the course of six years, Peters would put together an immense collection of specimens, including a vast array of reptiles. Indeed, he would go on to describe 122 new genera and 649 reptile species during his life, more than 60 percent of which remain valid today. But he was equally successful in his acquisition of other fauna, including several species of mammals, birds, amphibians, fish, as well as several invertebrates. While we may never know who first discovered the African Giant millipede (Archispirostreptus gigas), which is the subject of this article, they were first described by Peters, who brought several specimens back to Germany upon his return in 1848 and subsequently described them in 1855.
There are more than 5000 currently recognized millipede, with as many as 75,000 additional species that have yet to be described. The African Giant Millipede is among the largest of described millipede, with an average size of 36 cm (+/- 14 in.) and 6.5 cm (+/- 2.5 in.) in circumference. The anatomy of the millipede is quite basic, though fascinating, with a long, black or brown segmented exoskeleton. Their head has a set of antennae, ‘simple’ eyes, mandible, and mouth; they are effectively blind and use a series of spiracles that run along the trunk of their body to breath and aid their antennae and legs in exploring their environment. As adults, they have at least 200-250 legs (which varies as they grow/molt) attached to the trunk with four legs attached to each segment, and a telson. They use the whole of their body to smell and touch and are therefore extremely sensitive to their environment. They are also sexually dimorphic with males having gonopods, or external sexual organs, which appear on the seventh segment. Adult females also tend to be somewhat longer than males, averaging 35 cm (14 in.) verses 25.4cm (10 in.) in males.
In the wild, African giant millipedes can inhabit a diverse range of habitat, though they are mainly found in the tropical rainforests of East Africa and Senegal. They spend most of their lives moving around the forest floor (Zilla our Sponsor makes the best reviewed forest floor substrate) in search of rotten and decaying fruit and other plant debris. Some online sources claim that A. gigas is illegal to own in the United States, though this is not the case.
In fact, the only federal permitting required relates to their import, which is regulated by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). Similar regulations apply in the United Kingdom, where importing permits are regulated by the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA), though they are likewise legal as pets. Giant African millipede are not endangered and are seemingly plentiful in the wild.
The recommended enclosure for a Giant African millipede is the standard 150-litre (40 gallon) glass freshwater tank, particularly for adults whose size and substrate needs necessitate ample space. Enclosures should be at least 2.5 times longer than the body of your millipede and at least as wide as the length of the body. It is also recommended that you purchase a sealed tank top with security pins and clips. It is frequently the case that millipedes will endeavor to climb to the top of their enclosures and, having reached the lid, will work to and succeed in removing the lid, even with clips in place. A sealed top with pins and clips, though, usually thwarts their escape attempts.
Humidity should be maintained at 70-80% and monitored using a hydrometer. Keepers should heavily mist on a daily basis using a hand mister, which will aid in the necessary water and humidity needs. Keepers may find that their millipede will emerge and actively enjoy this misting shower. A. gigas acquire most of their water from their food and keepers should not be alarmed if they do not immediately witness active drinking. Millipedes need and enjoy a moist environment, though standing water should be used with some care as it can be lethal due to the potential for drowning. An extremely shallow water dish should be provided and cleaned daily.
Temperature is also important, and the enclosure should be monitored and maintained with a ceramic heat emitter so as to provide an ambient air temperature of around 25C (77F). Keepers who live in a warmer climate, with a higher ambient air temperature, have also found success without an artificial heat source, though heat should be carefully monitored to ensure a consistent temperature and heat pads should be avoided so as to prevent millipedes from regulating their temperature by burrowing. Some keepers have also found success by reducing the temperature of the enclosure during the evening hours to simulate conditions in the wild using a 14-hour on, 10-hour off cycle, though this should only be undertaken by experienced keepers to prevent accidental death.
Millipedes may choose to dine upon live plants in their enclosure, so it is recommended that keepers avoid live plants aside from moss, which they do enjoy and is suitably soft. They are also extremely heavy arthropods and are likely to destroy most live plants within their enclosure simply by walking on them. Plants can also be a challenge because millipedes are avid climbers, but can easily injure themselves in a fall, so imitation plants and structures should be kept at a suitably low height. Millipedes are nocturnal and it does not appear that (click here for more on UV)UV lighting is necessary. If you do include a plant light, be sure that it includes a day and night cycle.
Millipedes are cryptozoic invertebrates. It is therefore recommended that your tank substrate include a combination of orchid bark, sterilized soil, and fine, clean sand to a depth of at least 15 cm (6 in.). This will allow your millipede to burrow during breeding, to lay eggs, and otherwise explore and dig during shed, as they are want to do. Keepers should never use cedar bark for millipedes as it contains harmful oils. For additional interest and variety, keepers can also layer in larger pieces of sterilized tree bark and sphagnum moss. Bark hides are also recommended. Keepers could experiment with levels in their enclosure, mounding substrate and bark with gentle, sloping slides, though they should ensure that the top of the mound is no more than half the body length of an adult millipede so as to prevent injury and escape. The substrate should be changed completely once every two weeks to ensure a healthy environment, though A. gigas shed as they grow and burrow during the shed stage. Caution therefore needs to be taken during shed so as not to disturb burrowed millipedes.
African giant millipedes are herbivores and dark, leafy greens and vegetables of all sorts are popular fare. Melon, peach, and banana can also be offered as treats, along with other soft fruits. Tomato, cucumber, and squash can also be fed but should first be cut into pieces so as to expose the soft, inner flesh. It is recommended that keepers use a shallow feeding dish so as to prevent the ingestion of substrate and other foreign substances. Millipedes require calcium, so keepers should also provide a shallow dish with cuttlebone or Aquatic Turtle Pellets, such as those made by Zoo Med. A. gigas are also messy daily eaters and because the food they eat tends to spoil quickly, daily water changes and tank checks, along with tank refreshes every two days, are necessary. As nocturnal arthropods, millipedes will spend the daytime within their hide or burrow. As night approaches, they will emerge and become quite active, moving about the entirety of their enclosure in a search for food and otherwise exploring.
African giant millipedes can live communally and they are extremely easy to breed, requiring no real encouragement aside from an appropriate enclosure and food. As noted above, males can be identified by looking for their gonopods, which can be found by viewing the seventh segment. The male will approach and touch the female with their legs. If she is receptive, they will wrap their bodies around each other while the male deposits seminal fluid onto the female. After uncoupling, the female will then transfer these emissions to her eggs, then burrow and create a nest where she will deposit her eggs. There is some anecdotal evidence of females keeping guard over their eggs until hatching, so keepers should take care in changing substrate so as not to disturb them. Eggs and new hatchlings are also quite small and can be easy to miss with the naked eye, so it is also recommended to keep bi-weekly substrate cleaning to surface cleaning during the breeding and hatching stage until young are sufficiently large to separate without harm. There is no average clutch size; breeders report clutches of 25 to 200 eggs. A. gigas live 7 to 10 years in captivity.
African giant millipedes make incredibly interesting pets and are great for the beginning enthusiast, though care should be taken around young children. When frightened, A. gigas will curl into a tight ball, using their exoskeleton as protection, so care should be taken when handling them so as not to drop them. Keepers should be aware that when frightened they can also excrete a malodorous yellowish fluid through their repugnatorial pores. This fluid has been known to stain some keeper’s hands and can be harmful if brought into contact with the eyes or mouth. Keepers may also discover that their A. gigas carries some entirely harmless reddish-brown commensal mites, which are of benefit to their millipede and these should not be removed. With the appropriate care and feeding, owners can look forward to several years of fun with one of the largest, albeit occasionally smelliest, of terrestrial arthropods.
John F. Taylor is the Founder and Managing Editor of ReptileApartment.com. In addition to a volume on the natural history and care of Uromastyx (Tropical Fish Hobbyist, 2008), he has published essays on the natural history and care of reptiles in Reptilia, Reptile Care, Reptiles USA, and Reptiles Magazine. He lives in Seattle, Washington, USA.
The piece above appeared originally in Practical Reptile Keeping