Mother love underground

We often think of mother love as being a particularly human, or at least mammalian, attribute but it reaches all the the way down the evolutionary tree to the insect world, and to species we usually think of as dangerous, scary or just plain nasty. Perhaps we are usually wrong?

These reflections were prompted by my discovery on January 4 of a centipede mother-to-be curled protectively around her eggs  in a cavity under a log. She is not very big, as centipedes go – perhaps 40 mm long.

centipede with eggs
Discovered on January 4

She disliked being exposed and wriggled around, which allowed us to see her face. The good people at iNaturalist identified her as Rhysida nuda in the family Scolopendridae.

Wikipedia’s article on centipedes is so good that I don’t need to say much about them. To be very brief, they evolved at least 430 million years ago as generalist predators in moist environments, and that is still their lifestyle.

We mammals are much younger than that, so could we owe our maternal instincts to the centipedes, spiders and other arthropods? Or is it just such an evolutionarily successful habit that it has arisen independently many times? And does observing it like this encourage us to feel more kindly towards centipedes and other creepy-crawlies? Perhaps, perhaps, and I hope so.

I checked on her again today (the log was in my front garden) and she was still there, still cuddling her eggs. I left her in peace after taking another photo.

centipede with eggs
Still there on January 16

They’ve hatched!

I checked on them again on Jan 24 and found that the eggs had hatched.

The mother was curled around them when I lifted the log but, as before, was unhappy with being exposed and wriggled around. As she did, she dislodged her hatchlings from between her legs, which permitted a better view of some of them.

centipede with hatchlings
Centipede with hatchlings
centipede hatchlings
Close-up of hatchlings

Updated 24 Jan 2021

One thought on “Mother love underground”

  1. The babies are still with her today, at least four days after hatching.
    There have been a couple of other adult centipedes hanging around, too. I’m not sure whether they think the babies are potential food or the mother is a potential mate, but in the one interaction I happened to observe the mother was very aggressive towards the visitor.

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