Jason Heppenstall delves deep under the bedclothes and finds something nasty
LEON FEASEY, by his own admission, does not scare easily.
But one evening, tired after a hard day on a building site, something happened to him he will never forget. Retiring to the bedroom of his rustic house on the outskirts of Orgiva, he stripped naked and climbed into bed. Some time later his wife Rebecca decided to join him. But on entering the bedroom and pulling back the bedclothes she was in for a terrible shock. Leon awoke, startled, to find his wife screaming hysterically and pointing at something “long and evil-looking” nestling within the folds of the duvet.
“It was massive,” she told the Olive Press. “It was almost a foot long and writhing around in the bed as my husband slept.”
The weary builder leapt to his feet and had only seconds to size up the situation. Grabbing a jar he attempted to trap what looked like a giant squirming worm. “It wasn’t easy, it could move very fast and I couldn’t fit all of it in.”
Eventually, with it trapped inside the jar he ran into the living room and, opening the door of the log burning stove, threw it onto the red hot cinders inside before slamming the door shut. But the creature was not beaten yet. Seemingly unaffected by the intense heat it scuttled angrily around the inside the furnace before emerging through an air vent and resuming the attack.
In the ensuing mêlée, Leon managed to trap the creature again. This time he was taking no chances and bound the jar up in bundles of paper and tape before tossing it once again into the flames. Thus trapped the creature did not survive.
What Leon and Rebecca had encountered was a Megarian Banded Centipede, known in Spain as the scolopendra (or escolopendra). Said by some to be the worst creature you are ever likely to come upon in southern Europe, the scolopendra is a type of centipede and resembles something from the special effects department of a Hollywood movie. It is yellow with black stripes with pincers at the head end loaded with venom that deliver a very nasty bite. Modified claws curve around the head. The body itself is composed of around 20 segments, each with its own set of legs.
Unfortunately for you and I, this is a creature that we are quite likely to run into sooner or later. Almost anyone who has lived in Andalucía for any length of time has an anecdote relating to an encounter with a scolopendra. You see, scolopendras want the same as us – somewhere warm and dry to live and a nice place to curl up. And it is around this time of year domestic encounters reach their peak.
Indeed, only last week as the Olive Press was putting the finishing touches to the latest edition of the paper, something prehistoric stirred in the corner of the office. After a few minutes of watching it with a mixture of horror and curiosity, we decided that the best place for the creature was back outside where presumably he had come from.
Stories of encounters abound. Damian, living in La Alpujarra, found one in his sock when he put it on one morning while Andy, an electrician, noticed one crawling up his trouser leg as he sat at a table rolling a cigarette.
Fortunately for Leon, Andy and Damian quick reactions meant they avoided being bitten. English naturalist Charles Owen wrote in 1740 about the effects of a scolopendra bite:
“Its Weapons of Mischief are much the same as those of the Spider, only much larger; its Bite is very tormenting, and produces not only pruriginous Pain in the Fleshe, but very often Distractions of the Minde”
Fast forward 267 years and Philip – a guitar player in a local punk band – can fully relate to this. He takes up the story: “We’d been playing a gig in the riverbed one night and were all sleeping in tents. I woke up in the night to find a scolopendra in my sleeping bag, which subsequently bit me on the cheek as I tried to escape. It was agony. My whole head swelled up and I was feverish for two days.”
An insect eating a mammal
So just what is it about the scolopendra that makes it so universally loathed? Just about everything, it seems. From its dangerous looking stripes and the fluid way it moves to those nasty mandibles and its predilection for attacking first. A zoological text describes the creature as “aggressive” – and it is not meant as an insult. The scolopendra adopts a policy of bite first ask questions later when it comes to encounters with other species. And, make no mistake; this centipede does not mess around when it comes to encounters with other creatures.
Undertaking research on the internet, I came a across a grisly video – the ultimate stuff of nightmares. Someone, somewhere has engineered a film of a scolopendra (possibly his pet) attacking and then eating a cute-looking white mouse (possibly his ex-girlfriend’s pet). Yes – an insect eating an entire mammal in one go. For those of you ghoulish enough to want to see this rodent snuff movie have a look at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8CL2hetqpfg and don’t say I didn’t warn you…
But not everyone dislikes the scolopendra. In fact, taking a quick walk through cyberspace, it becomes apparent there are legions of adorers of this venomous arthropod. Many people do indeed choose to have them as pets in their own homes and give them goofy names like Tinkerbell and lovingly feed them live lizards. Some foolish souls even post photos of themselves with their cherished pets coiled up on their shoulders or hanging by the mandibles from their fingertips. And should you ever find a nice large specimen coiled up in your own bed/boot/underpants then rest assured that, after you have recovered from the venomous bite, you can trap the scaly fiend, pack it in a breathable jiffy bag and sell it on the internet for up to 40 euros. Most buyers seem to live in Germany, for some reason.
And if you do ever have the misfortune to get bitten by one you can give thanks for these two things: a) the bite may hurt a lot and you may well need an antihistamine but it is not considered dangerous b)…unless you have been bitten by the Peruvian Giant Yellow Centipede (the European scolopendra’s big cousin) that grows as long as your arm and can jump high enough to catch birds – in which case you had better call the doctor.
If you have had any scary scolopendra anecdotes or pictures please share them with firstname.lastname@example.org
- Name: scolopendra cingulata
- Habitat: Rocky, arid environment around Mediterranean
- Eats: Insects, lizards, other arthropods
- Active: Mostly nocturnal
- Captivity: Clear plastic container with air holes and peat floor. Interior decor not required.
- To demobilise: Place in fridge for one hour
- If bitten: Apply an icepack and wait for swelling to subside. If headaches and dizziness follow (extremely rare) seek emergency assistance