Centipedes (from Latin prefix centi-, "hundred", and pes, pedere, "foot") are arthropods belonging to the class Chilopoda of the subphylum Myriapoda. They are elongated metameric animals with one pair of legs per body segment. Despite the name, centipedes can have a varying number of legs from under 20 to over 300. Centipedes have an odd number of pairs of legs, e.g. 15 or 17 pairs of legs (30 or 34 legs) but never 16 pairs (32 legs). A key trait uniting this group is a pair of venom claws or forcipules formed from a modified first appendage. Centipedes are a predominantly carnivorous taxon.
Centipedes normally have a drab coloration combining shades of brown and red. Cavernicolous (cave-dwelling) and subterranean species may lack pigmentation and many tropical scolopendromorphs have bright aposematic colours. Size can range from a few millimetres in the smaller lithobiomorphs and geophilomorphs to about 30 cm (12 in) in the largest scolopendromorphs. Centipedes can be found in a wide variety of environments.
Worldwide, there are estimated to be 8,000 species of centipede, of which 3,000 have been described. Centipedes have a wide geographical range, reaching beyond the Arctic Circle. Centipedes are found in an array of terrestrial habitats from tropical rainforests to deserts. Within these habitats, centipedes require a moist micro-habitat because they lack the waxy cuticle of insects and arachnids, and so lose water rapidly through the skin. Accordingly, they are found in soil and leaf litter, under stones and dead wood, and inside logs. Centipedes are among the largest terrestrial invertebrate predators and often contribute significantly to the invertebrate predatory biomass in terrestrial ecosystems.
Myriapoda is a subphylum of arthropods containing millipedes, centipedes, and others. The group contains over 13,000 species, all of which are terrestrial. Although their name suggests they have myriad (10,000) legs, myriapods range from having over 750 legs (Illacme plenipes) to having fewer than ten legs.
The fossil record of myriapods reaches back into the late Silurian, although molecular evidence suggests a diversification in the Cambrian Period, and Cambrian fossils exist which resemble myriapods. The phylogenetic classification of myriapods is still debated.
The scientific study of myriapods is myriapodology, and those who study myriapods are myriapodologists.