Millipedes skittering through the garden or found crawling across basement floors present tempting creatures for curious minds to handle. But thinking twice before picking up millipedes has valid reasons behind the recommendation. This guide explores sensible precautions regarding contact to keep both you and millipedes healthy if crossed paths.
Millipede Defensive Behaviors
A key reason to avoid handling millipedes involves the insect’s defensive responses when threatened:
- When disturbed, millipedes may release noxious liquid secretions from pores along their bodies.
- These defensive fluids stain dark and have a potent musky, almond, or garlic-like smell.
- Contact with hands, skin, or eyes causes irritation, burning, rashes, numbness, or discoloration. Reactions usually remain minor but are unpleasant.
- Larger tropical millipedes can spray these secretions several inches, while smaller species rely on contact.
- Rotting millipede carcasses also continue emitting these irritating substances.
Keeping hands off millipedes prevents provoking this protective chemical response.
Millipedes Coil When Disturbed
Millipedes also exhibit a physical defensive reaction when people interfere with them:
- They rapidly coil their elongated bodies into a tight corkscrew shape.
- Coiling protects vulnerable undersides within the armored harder plates along their backs.
- The coiled posture makes millipedes difficult to handle without damaging legs.
- Unable to flee while coiled, trapped millipedes stress and may die prematurely.
Allowing millipedes to remain safely curled or flee disturbance prevents these fight-or-flight responses.
Risk of Dropped Millipedes
Another factor advising against touching millipedes includes accidental fall injuries:
- The small size and round shape of handled millipedes leads to frequent dropping.
- Once dropped, millipedes often curl into an immobile coil making retrieval difficult.
- Impact trauma from short falls can crack fragile exoskeletons or rupture internal organs.
- Injuries may lead to slowed movement or premature death after release.
Avoiding handling reduces uncontrolled falls and magnification of distress in millipedes.
Dangers of Predation
Touching millipedes additionally risks attracting predators that threaten both millipede and handler:
- Scent left on hands after contact makes both people and millipedes more conspicuous to predators.
- Larger wildlife drawn by millipede odor may approach people.
- Pet cats and dogs are also more inclined to attack held millipedes.
- Defensive secretions and confinement boost chances of accidental bites or stings to hands.
Letting millipedes remain wild and undisturbed keeps risks lower for all involved.
Health Risks of Millipede toxins
While not extremely hazardous, millipede spray introduces some health concerns:
- Toxins in spray can act as skin and eye irritants and sensitize skin to sunlight.
- Hydroquinones may induce allergic reactions in sensitive individuals.
- Ingesting the defensive substance causes burning sensations in the mouth and throat.
- Rubbing eyes after millipede handling could case eye irritation.
Avoiding direct contact avoids both immediate and cumulative reactions.
Alternative Millipede Monitoring
Instead of handling live millipedes, people can still safely observe them through:
- Collecting and examining empty molted exoskeletons.
- Photographing millipedes in nature using zoom lenses.
- Depositing millipedes into clear containers for temporary enclosed viewing.
- Trapping in open pitfall traps for counting and identification.
- Tracking habitat preferences and life stages.
These methods allow public education while preventing unnecessary stress to organisms.
Proper Millipede Handling
If handling cannot be avoided, take proper precautions:
- Use gloves, tools, or inverted containers to restrict direct contact.
- Do not grab, squeeze, or restrain millipedes. Allow them to freely crawl.
- Support larger millipedes’ entire body rather than lifting by single legs.
- Return millipedes to original habitat promptly to avoid captivity stress.
- Wash hands thoroughly after contact to prevent reactions.
- Avoid hand-to-face contact prior to washing.
With care, unavoidable handling can minimize risks when interactions are for scientific or educational purposes.
FAQ About Touching Millipedes
Why do millipedes release smelly juice when touched?
Millipedes emit protective sprays to deter predators from eating them. Even gentle handling triggers this defensive reaction. The potent odor distracts attackers while skin irritants provide further disincentive. Avoiding contact prevents provoking this survival response.
Are millipedes dangerous to touch?
Millipedes themselves pose very little danger, but the caustic oils and cyanide compounds in their defensive secretions can irritate skin. Eye exposure causes more severe reactions. Their small mouths cannot bite. Simply avoid direct handling to prevent defensive spraying.
What happens if a millipede sprays you?
Aim to wash skin promptly with soap and water if sprayed. Hydroquinone in the secretion causes skin darkening that resolves over a few days. Some species also emit hydrogen cyanide requiring immediate flushing if eyes or mouth are exposed. Reactions typically remain minor.
Why do millipedes curl up when touched?
When threatened by handling, millipedes instinctively coil their flexible segmented bodies into tight corkscrew shapes. This protects delicate legs within the armored exterior plates. Curled millipedes cannot easily flee danger, increasing stress.
Should I be scared of millipedes?
Millipedes are harmless and avoid confronting larger animals, relying on camouflage for protection. Their small mouths cannot bite or pinch. Defensive secretions deter predators but mainly cause localized skin irritation. Their appearance often worries people more than their actual threat risk.
How do you pick up a millipede safely?
Use gloves or a smooth container to scoop beneath coiled millipedes to avoid provoking spray. Support their entire body length if handling is required. Minimize duration and return to original habitat to prevent endangering sensitive species. Casual handling without purpose is discouraged.
Are millipedes toxic when dead?
Fresh millipede carcasses continue emitting defensive chemicals even after death when disturbed. But toxins quickly degrade as bodies decay over hours, losing the capacity for skin irritation. Wear gloves when disposing of dead millipedes as a precaution.
Millipedes present a unique behavioral dilemma where direct handling often causes more harm than benefit out of simple curiosity. Their small size and defensive responses make contact stressful for both parties involved. But alternative observation methods allow fascinated study from a respectful distance. Recognizing that restraint invites detrimental outcomes for millipedes encourages sparing them unnecessary interference as we share natural spaces.