Cochise County Arthropods: The Desert Millipede


Some of our regular readers may be scratching their heads. Cochise County arthropods?  The  desert millipede?  After all, I’ve only begun building this site.  Prior to this post, no single category of critters contained more than one species.

And I’m doubling down on arthropods?  Really?  With the lowly millipede?  True, it’s a relatively cool desert millipede aka Orthoporus Ornatus, but still.

Ghost, you’ve got to be kidding.  Why?

Fair question.  It deserves an answer:  The millipede gets a page here and now because the little beastie hardly ever gets any respect.  We figured it deserved a break.  Besides, there are some civilians out there who couldn’t tell you the difference between a millipede and a centipede, for cry-yi!

That’s just not right.  Depending on the species, the centipede can nail you with some more or less nasty venom.  The innocent millipede doesn’t even bite (or sting).

When this multi-legged detritus-eater  is threatened,  it curls up in a tight spiral and hopes the danger goes away.  Except for exuding a bit of nasty tasting cyanide if actually attacked, that’s all it does.

The millipede, understandably alarmed by shovel work near its position, curls up in a tight head-protecting spiral.

Truth be told, once the above photo was blown up wa-ay bigger than life size (the actual live desert millipede coil measured only about one inch across), this page had to be written.  Were we to be told that this was not a lowly rotten-leaf eater grubbing in your local dirt  but, say, a sensational seashell sitting by the seashore, we’d be in love.  There’d be ooh’s and aah’s and beachcombers by the thousand searching the sand for samples.

This particular specimen came to my attention a couple of weeks ago.  It was crawling with its multitudinous legs on the north side of a set of fiberglass-covered steps leading up into the old semi trailer we use for storage.

Since that didn’t seem like a normal comfort zone for a being usually found at or below the surface of the soil, I figured it could use a lift to safer turf.   But…how to do that safely, complete with photos and with no harm to the Cochise County poster-beast for non-biting arthropods?

In the end, it worked out like this:

1.  My looming presence encouraged the millipede to get down off that fiberglass wall.

2.  Scooping up some dirt with a shovel, dirt on which the object of the exercise was riding safely, should do the trick–but first, rocks had to be gently lifted out of the way to guarantee the little fellow (or female) would not be hurt.

3.  The rock-removing activity spooked  the millipede enough to produce the “I’m scared” coil…which actually made it easier to do the lift-and-carry thing.

4.  A few dozen yards out back, where the bunchgrass grows in profusion, the shovel was tipped a bit and the coil-dude slid/dropped more or less gently down through the grass and onto the surface of the Earth.

The millipede at first sighting.

At this point, the scientific observation part of me took over.  That’s not a big part, admittedly, but I will on occasion get a bit curious–and in this case, I decided to find out how long a millipede stays scared after a threat seems to have gone with the wind.

So I timed it.  Watching the little black seashell-looking coil, I began counting off seconds:  “Alligator 1, alligator 2, alligator 3….”

At alligator 28,  the critter uncoiled–rather abruptly–and went merrily on its way.

Which doesn’t necessarily mean all millipedes will figure the coast is clear if you stand there without moving for exactly 28 seconds–millipedes are people, too. It would be a bit surprising if the timing didn’t vary a bit from individual to individual.

The millipede and a bit of dirt take a ride on the shovel blade.

More and more, I’m impressed with the wildlife here on the acreage we call New Moon Ranch, an area muchly covered with bunchgrass, mesquite trees, brittle brush, creosote bushes, and the like.  Almost daily, Pam and I are reminded of the wonder and beauty to be found all around us, sometimes quite literally beneath our feet.

True, we may not get many converts to the concept of a humble arthropod like the millipede functioning as a work of art.  But we’re not after converts.  We’re just watching, taking pictures, and reinforcing our convictions daily that we really, really like it right here.

Unafraid, uncoiled, and moving out in its favored environment. Leaf mold. For a millipede, it’s what’s for dinner.

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