Windhoek has been blessed with wonderful rain showers since Christmas, which have brought relief to both the human and animal inhabitants of the area after a sweltering heat wave. There’s something about living in the desert that makes you doubly appreciative of nature’s offerings, and water is received with so much more gratitude than it would be in an area that receives regular rainfall.
I go out walking most mornings and after a heavy downpour the air is moist and cool and there’s an ‘aliveness’ in the air. Not only are all the birds singing and chatting, but the mongooses, baboons and guinea fowl are out and about, drinking at the pools and puddles and eating the flying ants and insects that are buzzing around. It makes one feel so good and happy to be alive. It’s also a time when millipedes come out in their droves.
In Africa, millipedes are affectionately known as “shongololos” – a name given to them by the indigenous people – from the word “ukushonga” meaning ‘to roll up’, as these little creatures do when they are threatened. In central/east Africa the locals called the first trains that they saw ‘shongololos’ because they resembled these funny little creatures. They fall under the class Diplopoda and family Spirostreptrornorpha.
Millipedes are arthropods, which means that they are invertebrates that have an exoskeleton. Their bodies are divided into segments, mostly two fused together, and each segment sports a couple of pairs of legs. Those segments with two pairs are called diplosomites. On the segments immediately behind the head, there are only single pairs of legs and these are known as somites. The last few segments, near the anus, have no legs at all.
I love watching millipedes walk as their legs move in a wavelike motion – perfectly synchronized as they go. When my legs are weary from a long walk, I often wish I had a few extra pairs in reserve to help me continue on my journey. Millipedes don’t actually have 1000 legs as their name suggests, but sport between 36 to 400 – thank goodness they aren’t human and need shoes!
I avoid picking them up, because they have a tendency to give off an awful smell that is difficult to remove from your hands. When in danger, they sometimes secrete hydro cyanic acid, which repels predators. They also curl themselves up into a coil to protect their vulnerable underside, known as the sternite or sternum.
They mostly eat decaying plant matter, but the ones around here are seen happily devouring ants – and they have a never-ending supply.
Shongololo’s moult as they grow, and one often sees dull grey empty shells lying on the ground. With each new exoskeleton they acquire more segments and more legs. They lay between 10 and 300 eggs and the hatchlings are perfect little replica’s of the adults except that they only have three pairs of legs initially. I believe that they moult for the first time within 24 hours of hatching and continue to do this throughout their lives.
They’re interesting little creatures that I’m always happy to see, especially if we meet after a good rainfall!