The little invertebrate that could

Mark Harvey's blog | Created 5 years ago

Portuguese millipedes have hit the headlines again – for all the wrong reasons!

This morning (September 3, 2013), Portuguese millipedes were suspected to be involved in causing an unfortunate rail accident at Clarkson station. The species has been reported from across southern Australia for many years, where they create a nuisance in gardens and homes. They have free rein to expand their ranges, as they lack any natural predators or parasites in Australia.

Portuguese millipedes grow to 4cm in body length, have black, shiny bodies and a pointed ‘tail’ - unlike the many indigenous species residing in the Perth region. They are most common in autumn and winter when they emerge from the ground to feed, grow and mate. Females dig deep into the soil and lay a batch of eggs, which is protected during the hot summer months. The eggs hatch in autumn and the life-cycle continues.

Portuguese millipedes have been in Western Australian for several decades and were, until recently, restricted to suburbs in the Darling Range. Over the last ten years they have spread into native bushland and suburban areas across south-western Australia. We have no evidence on the affect they have on native biota, but their sheer numbers are likely to result in disruptions to local ecosystems.

Although relatively harmless to humans, they can build up into huge populations in a short time. Like many other millipedes, they possess glands on the side of their bodies that emit a noxious cyanide-based compound to deter predators. Handling Portuguese millipedes can result in an unpleasant smell and a residue which should definitely be washed off...

So, in short, they are relatively harmless and there's little need to be afraid. Unless, of course, you are a train.

A long black Portuguese millipede crawling over some pavement

Train beware: Portuguese millipede
Image copyright WA Museum