Lots of Legs in the Garden

 We’ve just come through the longest rains I can remember, with downpours so frequent and heavy that even the mosquito larvae were washed away. The roof leaked, shoes mildewed, clothes and sheets never felt really dry.

Every morning Wayan Manis would arrive to work in her raincoat and hang it up to drip with a baleful glare at the sky. “Masih basah, masih gelap,” she would mutter. Still wet, still dark.

But the garden loved the rain. Trees sent new branches scouting in all directions, vines soared up every wall and the bamboo grew visibly as I sipped my morning coffee. The durian tree bloomed luxuriantly for the first time in  years and set about 60 fruit. Every few weeks the gardener and I would slash back huge heaps of biomass and heave it over the cliff along with its cargo of bugs, reptiles and  amphibians.

The wildlife also throve. The birds in the garden seemed more numerous. Friends who lived near rice fields excitedly reported the reappearance of fireflies. Jewel-like tree frogs napped in my shoes. My hens waded through the mud to their laying box every morning to deliver their eggs. And I began to find centipedes all over the house and garden.

Tiny newborn ones, long narrow ones and a fat brown one with a thick frill of legs. I tried to be as curious and welcoming to these creatures as I was to others but the heart does not warm naturally to a centipede, I find, the way it does to a butterfly.

 So I did some research in order to become more comfortable with my new neighbours. As usual when investigating the creatures of Bali I turned to Ron Lilley, whose encyclopaedic knowledge of local wildlife continues to enchant me.

“Centipedes (Chilipoda) are a widespread species and the large ones we have here are the genus Scolopendra; as yet no one has classified all the members in Bali,” he told me. “The centipede here is known as kaki seribu or more often lipan or kelabang to distinguish it from the millipedes. They will grow to about 15cm in Bali, although some Scolopendra elsewhere grow to over 30 cm long.”

Despite the name, centipedes never have 100 legs. Depending on the species, they can have as few as 15 pairs of legs or as many as 171 pairs, but always an odd number. They may live for up to 6 years.

Scolopendra are nocturnal predators, feeding primarily on insects and other invertebrates. Larger specimens have been observed preying on frogs, tarantulas, lizards, snakes, rodents, and even bats. More helpfully, around the house they consume bedbugs, termites, silverfish, spiders and even cockroaches.

David Lowenthal, an outstanding photographer of tiny wildlife, gave me a selection of photos to choose from. He spends his nights deep in forests and gardens waiting for an interesting bug or reptile to come along, then waits for as long as it takes for the perfect shot.

As David points out, there is a tender side to centipede family life. For example, they have distinct courtship rituals. I warmed slightly to the species after watching a couple of aroused centipedes sharing a tender moment at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FwPMPQjbJm4. (I know, I know, I need to get out more.)

Centipedes either lay eggs or bear live young depending on the species. Most females will tend to their eggs and hatchlings, curling their bodies around their brood for protection. Eggs are prone to the growth of fungi and require grooming from their devoted mothers to ensure that they hatch and thrive.

Prone to dehydration, poor things, centipedes require a moist environment. I often encounter them in the compost and under plant pots. Wear gloves when working in the garden; a centipede bite, delivered by a pair of venomous ‘fangs’ near the head, is nasty. Though not life-threatening, bites can be extremely painful. Rinse the bite site in cold water and ice it if not too painful to constrict the blood vessels so the venom does not spread. Apply some mashed ripe papaya – the   enzyme papain breaks down protein.

Keep things off the ground to make your house free of centipedes; wood and rock piles next to the outer house walls should be removed. It’s wise to shake out clothes, towels and shoes in case any centipedes are hiding there. Or maybe scorpions.

Like centipedes, scorpions (kalajengking) are nocturnal predators but they’re not fussy, they will sting you any old time. Ron has heard of no fatalities from scorpion bites in Bali although the sting can be painful. I can second that; the scorpion sting was the single most painful event in my memory. Even infant scorpions and centipedes can pack a mean punch, so don’t underestimate them.

Scorpion courtship can be even more romantic than that of centipedes. According to the literature, “The courtship starts with the male grasping the female’s pedipalps (pincers) with his own; the pair then ‘dance’ as the male leads the female around searching for a suitable place in which to deposit his spermatophore. Or the male in some cases may inject a small amount of his venom, probably as a means of pacifying her.” The mating process can take up to 25 hours. If mating continues too long, the female may lose interest and, understandably, wander off. Scorpions produce live young, which are carried on the mother’s back until the first molt.

“Roughly scorpions fall into two types: narrow-clawed and small, and ones with bigger claws like lobsters which live further inland and in damper forest conditions”, Ron says. “The small ones can frequently be seen around human residences at night, emerging from under loose boards, rocks, bricks or woodpiles.”

Interesting scorp facts for your next quiz night: because scorpions can live in such harsh environments they have adapted the ability to slow their metabolism to as little as one-third the rate for most arthropods. This enables some species to use little oxygen and survive on a single insect a year. They have ‘book’ lungs, like horseshoe crabs, which enable them to stay submerged underwater for up to 48 hours. And for reasons that scientists are still debating, scorpions glow under ultraviolet light.

According to Ron, scorpions and centipedes – especially the bigger ones – are increasingly kept as interesting pets here, and animal dealers regularly stock them. So we need never be puzzled again when seeking a really unusual gift for the friend who has everything. Scorpions have been known to live 25 years in captivity, so potentially a warm relationship could develop over time.

Bali’s wildlife is largely unstudied. Of the 2,000 species of scorpion known in the world David has photographed seven here but there are probably more. Worldwide there are estimated to be 8,000 species of centipede, of     which 3,000 have been described. David has seen and documented five species here; again, there are probably more. Except for a handful of enthusiasts like David and Ron, very few people are looking for them.

Check out www.baliwildlife.com for a whole gallery of beautiful, seldom-seen creatures. Visit Ron Lilley’s Bali Snake Patrol Facebook page not just for reptilian adventures but with any wildlife queries.


E-mail: ibukatbali@gmail.com

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