Giant Centipedes Caught Eating Thousands of Baby Birds on an Australian Island

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 venomous 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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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 ground is their breeding ground for black-winged petrels, who build burrows to ensure that their chicks are always in good hands.

A Phillip Island centipede and an adult black-winged petrel. (Luke Halpin

As the chicks are resting, the centipedes attack, removing flesh from the necks of the babies and injecting deadly poison into their bodies. Then they eat them alive until paralysis sets in.

The researchers calculated that centipedes consume approximately 2,109 to 3,724 chicks per year by studying their hunting behavior and analysing 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 percent of the food consumed by the apex predators came from vertebrate animals, with only 8 percent from seabird chicks.

Although it is skin-crawling, the centipedes are vital to the island's ecosystem. They bring nutrients from the ocean (where the petrels hunt for food) onto the land. This makes the centipedes essential for the regrowth and maintenance of the island's vegetation.

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 stated that this could have significant implications for understanding the trophic structure of islands and how vertebrate communities are formed, perhaps especially on islands where arthropod gigantism and evolutionary processes have allowed invertebrates occupy new niches." The researchers wrote in the study. Tropic structures refer to the various levels within an ecosystem an organism might fit into, such as carnivores and herbivores.

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

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Live Science originally published this article. You can read the original article here.