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Speedster

31 Mar

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We found this little beauty on the wall of a converted 13th century chapel in a tiny fortified village called Cotagnano in Northern Italy on holiday one year. It is the centipede Scutigera coleoptrata – a most impressive arthropod which has been around, unchanged, since before the evolution of insects. Each of its fifteen pairs of legs is slightly longer than the set in front, this is because of the way it runs. It is the fastest arthropod on land. I have seen a captive one catch three blue bottles and subdue them with its poison claws in the blink of an eye, holding each paralysed prey item, conveyor belt like, beneath its body ready for a blue bottle buffet.

Sprinters have to adopt a particular ‘gait’ in order to propel themselves quickly across the ground. They aim to have their propelling foot in contact with the ground for the shortest time, the return phase being much longer than the propulsion phase. Think of a galloping horse – the legs appear to remain airborne for longer than they are in contact with the turf during a gallop. The very opposite is true in a tug of war, or scrum, where the propelling foot stays on the ground the maximum length of time and the return step is very quick – this gait provides maximum traction.

Scutigera runs so quickly that each hind leg over reaches the legs in front – hence the raked appearance of the appendages along the body. Unlike any other centipede, Scutigera also possesses compound eyes and is, therefore, very sensitive to movement in its visual field. It has a respiratory pigment and unusual dorsal spiracles leading to trachea or breathing tubes – feeding a relatively high metabolic rate. This centipede is the arthropod equivalent of a Cheetah.

Humans have for centuries tried to emulate Nature in the search for engineering perfection, speed and power. We can only admire this centipede’s level of pure biological sophistication it seems to me. It is astonishing to imagine how, in the space of a few million years of evolution, Natural Selection, working on the unlikely substrate of the segmented body of a marine invertebrate could have produced this miniature speedster.

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