These flesh-eating centipedes hunt and eat baby birds alive. Here's why.

A new study has shown that giant, carnivorous centipedes living on an island in the South Pacific can kill and eat as many as 3,700 chicks each year.
Phillip Island centipedes, Cormocephalus coynei, are fierce beasties that can grow up to 30 centimeters (30 inches) in length. They wear armored plates on their segments, and have a powerful venom that they inject into the skin of unwitting victims via pincer-like "forcipules."

Researchers were particularly interested in the leggy monsters' horrific diet. New research shows that the Phillip Island centipedes, which hunt and consume thousands of baby black-winged Petrels (Pterodroma.nigripennis), are the undisputed apex predators. They are located 870 miles (1.400 kilometers) east Australia and play an important role in the island's ecosystem.

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A black-winged adult petrel and a flesh-eating Phillip Island centipede. Luke Halpin, image credit

The Conversation reported that they "have taken the place (or ecological niche?) of predatory mammals which are absent from this island."

The centipedes begin to emerge from their lairs at night to follow their victims. They navigate across the forest floor, using two sensitive antennas. The chicks of black-winged petrels can be found in burrows dug on the ground by the black-winged petrels. As the chicks are resting, the centipedes attack, removing flesh from their necks and injecting deadly poison into their bodies. Then they eat them as soon as paralysis sets in. The researchers calculated that centipedes consume between 2,109 and 3,724 chicks per year by studying their hunting behavior and analyzing tissue taken from their maws.

According to researchers, this is the first instance of centipedes attacking seabirds.

The centipedes don't just hunt seabird chicks; they also eat geckos and skinks as well as crickets and even scavenged seafood.

The researchers spent 132 hours watching the centipedes hunt at night and tracked them. The researchers used their recordings to build a model that could predict the diet of centipedes. They found that 48% of the food consumed by the apex predators came from vertebrate animals, with only 8% from seabird chicks.

Although it is skin-crawling, the centipedes are vital for the island's ecosystem. They bring nutrients from the ocean (where the petrels hunt for food) to land. This makes the island vital for the regrowth. It was extensively destroyed by humans who made the island a penal colony in 1788.

The pigs and goats had been removed by the mid-20th century. Since then, conservation efforts at the Norfolk Island National Park have eliminated all remaining rabbits. This has allowed the centipede and seabird populations to recover. What did the result look like? The island's ecology rebounded and is now flourishing.

The study reveals that "this could have important implications for understanding trophic structure on islands and how vertebrate community are shaped", the researchers write. They refer to trophic systems as the various levels within an ecosystem where an organism might fit in, for example, carnivores and herbivores.

The findings of the researchers were published in The American Naturalist on Aug. 3.

Original publication on Live Science