Honeymooning scientist discovers giant venomous amphibious centipede

Some people have to accept that their partners are married to their work, but the new wife of scientist George Beccaloni may have been sightly miffed when the most exciting thing to happen during their honeymoon to Southeast Asia was the discovery of a 20cm-long centipede that can swim and inflict an excruciatingly painful bite.

The gallivanting groom originally spotted the leggy beast whilst idly exploring some rocks near a waterway in Thailand during his honeymoon. When he disturbed it, the creature ran into the stream to hide, which is highly unusual behaviour for a centipede, an animal that normally avoids water. Beccaloni knew this was odd, because he’s an entomologist who works for the Natural History Museum in London as a curator of orthopteroids (an order of insects which include crickets and praying mantises).

‘Wherever I go in the world, I always turn over rocks beside streams, and that’s where I found this centipede, which was quite a surprise,’ Beccaloni told National Geographic. ‘It was pretty horrific-looking: very big with long legs and a horrible dark, greenish-black colour.’

The dedicated scientist then managed to capture the animal and put it in a large container of water (because everyone keeps a specimen jar handy when they’re on honeymoon, don’t they?) where he says it swam around like an eel, further intriguing him.

When he got back to work, Beccaloni finally figured out that he’d chanced upon a type of centipede that had been collected just four times before (the first was found in Vietnam in 1928), but had never been observed swimming.

That all happened in 2001, but, as recently announced in the online academic journal ZooKeys, the animal has now been confirmed as the world’s first known amphibious centipede, and has been officially named Scolopendra cataracta (from the Latin for ‘waterfall’).

Southeast Asian centipedes shown in their juvenile (above) and adult (below) phases. Images: ZooKeys
Southeast Asian centipedes shown in their juvenile (above) and adult (below) phases. Images: ZooKeys

Centipedes have tiny fangs that can pierce human skin to inflict a harmless, but extremely painful, bite. Typically they prey on other invertebrates, but the bigger ones are also capable of killing and eating snakes and mice (be warned; links make for some brutal watching).

‘I would bet this species goes into the water at night to hunt aquatic or amphibious invertebrates,’ Beccaloni said of his discovery.

‘People tend to study streams in the tropics during the day, but there is probably a whole other range of interesting amphibious things that come out at night. It would be good to study these streams and their fauna then to see what is actually going on under the cover of darkness.’

If only more scientists were willing to spend their honeymoon nights undertaking nocturnal insect hunts.