Magic Millipedes: Battling bites or getting high?

As a Scottish native and an avid camper I can tell you first hand that midges are bastards.

(if you are being pedantic, it is only the females that bite so, bitches is the correct term)

At certain times of the year along the West Coast they are almost unbearable! These winged scourges are annoying enough to warrant scientists at Edinburgh University spending millions developing a Midge killing machine. This may seem a bit extreme, however studies have shown that they cost the Scottish tourism industry  around £286 million every year. While we humans are able to develop equipment  to deter and mass murder this blood sucking menace, other animals are not so fortunate; sheep, cattle and deer are among the poor animals that are haplessly bitten at will.


You may be wondering where I am going with this?

Well, I just learned humans may not be alone when it comes to developing non-physiological (built in natural defences) insect repellents.

Last weekend I attended a nature live talk on poisonous invertebrates at the Natural History museum  and I was very interested to learn something regarding millipedes. Millipedes are very slow creatures and due to their inability to bite or sting, they have developed an interesting defence mechanism. They emit various foul-smelling liquid secretions through microscopic holes along there body. These secretions include many different chemicals including hydrogen cyanide, Some of these substances can burn the exoskeleton of ants and other insects and the skin and eyes of larger predators.

This is interesting in its own right but what really grabbed my attention was how rainforest dwelling Monkeys and Lemurs use the millipedes defence mechanism to their advantage.

Capsaicin Monkeys and some species of lemurs use the millipedes as insect repellent!

The furry smart alecks do this by grabbing a millipede and giving it a gentle bite to activate its toxic gas emitting defence mechanism and then rub the toxin over their fur. This acts as an insect repellent preventing the primates from being bitten by insects and studies have shown that it has anti parasite and anti fungal properties as well. They then release the millipede relativity unharmed.

So there you go, natural insect repellent!

It is amazing to see an animal utilise its environment in such a complex fashion. However before you nominate them for the genius award there may be a different motivation other than insect repellent for this behaviour explained in this video.

Like humans, some animals like to trip balls.

In case you can’t view the footage it shows that the toxic millipede excretion gets the lemur stoned, they even pass the hapless invertebrate around like a joint to share with their fellow lemurs.

From dolphins chewing on  puffer fish to jaguars eating ayahuasca lots of animals like to get high, so this is nothing new.

Speculating about the routes of  this behaviour in animals deserves its own blog post so I wont go into it just now, but I would like to finish with a question.

Has this millipede rubbing behaviour been adopted by primates to repel insects and getting high is a side effect, or is it vice versa?

In other words what’s more important to a primate, battling bites or getting high?




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