Bugs that don’t bite or sting should be the least of our worries, but the National Park Service just posted an unusual warning about a gaudy millipede that has a far stranger defense mechanism.
Known as the cherry millipede, it oozes cyanide, Virginia’s Richmond National Battlefield Park reported on Facebook. One of the bugs was recently found in a heavily wooded part of the park, officials said.
“Most millipedes defend themselves by curling into a tight coil, allowing their hard exoskeleton to form a protective shield,” park officials said.
“Apheloria virginiensis uses a different strategy: it secretes toxic cyanide compounds to keep from being eaten. Its vibrant stripes let predators know to watch out! ... These beauties don’t bite or sting. Just be sure to wash your hands and avoid touching your eyes if you happen to handle one.”
Battlefield staff photographed one of the millipedes “deep in the woods at Malvern Hill,” a Civil War battlefield within the park that has remained “nearly unaltered in appearance since 1862,” according to the National Park Service.
The species’ sweet-sounding name comes from its toxic ooze, which “smells like cherries or almonds,” according to research done by entomologist Derek Hennen on behalf of the Ohio Biological Survey.
“Because it is released in small amounts, it is mostly harmless to humans,” he said, noting the species remains mysterious to many.
“Millipedes aren’t particularly well known by the general public, or even by most scientists for that matter. They are not as showy as birds or butterflies, and millipede identification can be tricky.”
The species plays an important role by “breaking down leaf litter and other decaying organic matter, allowing nutrients to re-enter the soil and be used by living plants,” the National Park Service says.