The largest centipede in New Zealand

Author: Jonathan MowerDate: 17th October 2023

Staying overnight in the Tiritiri Matangi bunkhouse is guaranteed to give you unexpected moments but finding a large (15-20cm) hura/giant centipede (Cormalocephalus rubriceps) in the tea towel drawer, as Jackson Frost recently did, is elevating unexpected to another level.

Native to New Zealand and Australia, this is the largest centipede in New Zealand. Present in North Island and smaller offshore islands, they are usually found beneath rotting logs, stones, and decaying vegetation.

The giant centipede belongs to an order known as Scolopendrida, a group that includes the largest and most fearsome centipede species, all of whom have 21 pairs of legs (1 pair per body segment). Centipedes always have an odd number of pairs of legs, and despite their name, none of the centipede orders actually have 100 legs.

Their legs vary in length depending on where they are located on the body. This is thought to prevent legs from becoming tangled while moving at speed.

The most striking example of leg modification occurs with the first body segment’s legs, which form an evolutionary novelty** known as forcipules. These are powerful, sabre-like pincers that crush and incapacitate their prey while delivering poison through a duct located at their sharpened end.

Very active nocturnal hunters, they are a voracious predator of small prey such as insects, worms, molluscs and other invertebrates which they locate with their highly mobile, backward pointing, segmented antennae, and disc like Tömösváry organs*. Although these centipedes do have visible eyes, (ocelli), their vision is poor.

Large adults (>25cm) are known to eat small vertebrates such as reptiles and amphibians. However, due to predation on the mainland by introduced mammals, larger specimens are usually only found in mammalian predator-free sanctuaries and on offshore islands.

Despite their voracious nature, female giant centipedes are highly protective parents. Laying clusters of eggs within cavities they excavate in the soil, the female will wrap her body around the egg mass until they hatch into miniature versions of the parents (though lacking sexual organs), a process known as incomplete metamorphosis. She will then continue to protect her young in this way, sometimes even carrying her young when she moves, all the while protecting them with her forcipules.

Though the forcipules are quite capable of delivering a painful pinch (not a bite as they are not mouthparts) to anyone unwise or unlucky enough to handle a giant centipede, this is only a defensive response that will seldom result in serious side effects. As with all our native fauna, it is best practice not to handle these animals.

It is likely this centipede had been out hunting and only entered the dark tea towel drawer to escape the light. After having been photographed, it was released into the (relative) safety of the forest soon after this photograph was taken.

*Tömösváry organs are located near the antennae’s base. They are thought to detect vibration, humidity, and gravity.

**An evolutionary novelty is an attribute that has evolved only in one group of organisms

Header Photo credit: jacksonfrost.nature

Booking the Tiritiri Matangi Bunkhouse

The bunkhouse is the only accommodation on Tiritiri Matangi. It is a communal facility and has limited availability as it is primarily used by volunteers and students carrying out work on the island.


  • Gas stove and oven
  • Microwave oven
  • BBQ
  • Two fridges and a freezer
  • All cutlery, crockery, utensils etc
  • Pots and pans
  • Dishwashing liquid, dish cloths and dish brushes
  • Tea towels
  • Drinking water (rainwater from the tap)
  • Two hot showers
  • Two toilets (toilet paper provided)
  • 3 rooms for public use, with 15 bunk beds in total:
    • Room 1 Kahu: 4 beds
    • Room 2 Kokako: 5 beds
    • Room 3 Tuatara: 6 beds
Click to book