Millipedes are myriapods, meaning ‘many pairs of legs’. They survive over much of the country and evolved from ancestors that were the first creatures to make the move from water to land millions of years ago.
They are now all terrestrial but most common in areas with a milder climate and plenty of moisture. They are common under rocks and logs, in leaf litter and soil and under the bark of trees.
Quite often, creatures that have a bad reputation are great helpers in the garden. Millipedes are typically blind herbivores, living in the leaf litter and scavenging on almost anything. They seem to converge on any waste or rotting material. They are great garden disposers.
Having lots of short legs makes millipedes very slow, but they are very powerful burrowers. With the legs moving in a wave-like pattern, they easily force their way underground, head first. Due to their lack of speed, a millipede’s main defence mechanism is to coil into a tight circle – protecting their legs inside their armoured body.
Many species also emit a poisonous liquid which can burn the exoskeleton of ants and other insect predators, and the skin and eyes of larger predators. This chemical brew is harmless to humans, although may cause irritation to your eyes if it’s rubbed in them.
A Millipede only uses this defence if you drop, pinch, or roughly handle them – so if you treat your little mates with respect, you have nothing to worry about.
Millipedes in general are getting a bad reputation from the introduced pests that are invading houses across southern Australia in plague proportions.
Portuguese Millipedes get into food, bedding and clothes, stain floors when squashed, stink and destroy backyard veggie gardens. As well as their smell and distinctive stains, these pesky invaders have even disrupted rail services!
DID YOU KNOW?
Millipedes are related to Centipedes but neither are insects. Insects have three pairs of legs compared with the dozens to hundreds of pairs of Centipedes and Millipedes. Millipedes are sometimes confused with their many-legged relatives the centipede, centipedes have only one pair of legs on each body segment instead of the two pairs found in millipedes.