Millipedes in the Classroom
One of our favorite classroom pets are our millipedes. They are one of the easiest pets to care for, with minimal requirements. Although most millipedes are nocturnal, depending on the type of millipede, they may be more active above or below the substrate. Our most active millipede is the Golden Millipede, named "Eggs". She prefers to stay on top of the substrate and can be found climbing on the branches, or among the crispy leaves. Our Desert Brown Millipede, named "Bacon", likes to burrow through the substrate for long periods of time. My students try to search for her and get excited when she's burrowed up against the glass walls of the enclosure. Our two Smokey Oak Millipedes (named the "Hashbrown Twins"), are the largest of our classroom millipedes. They make fairly large tunnels through the substrate, visible enough for observing. Large or small, millipedes are fascinating creatures that students would most likely not have interaction with outside the classroom. No matter the type of millipede you care for, basic needs for their habitat and nutrition are a must.
Millipedes don't require elaborate enclosures. They can be made from plastic or glass. Depending on the size of your largest millipede, enclosures can run from the size of a Critter Keeper to a ten gallon tank. The basic rule of thumb for size is: at least twice as long as the longest millipede, as wide as your longest millipede and deep enough for four or more inches of substrate. The lid must have ventilation. Depending on the type of millipede, the amount of ventilation required for humidity will vary. Make sure you do research on your specific type of millipede, to provide the correct enclosure size, temperature and humidity needs.
We have a five gallon reptile tank, with a screen lid and safety clips. Three-fourths of the lid is covered by a plastic lamination sheet, to help reduce humidity loss. Since the tank is made from glass, my students have a clear, unobstructed view of our classroom pets. The tank is at my students' eye level and magnifying glasses are kept nearby for my students to closely observe with. With every living animal, we have a picture label with their name, on the exterior of their enclosure (image taken before the Smokey Oak Millipedes were added). I keep individual pet species picture books, with real photographs, near each enclosure. Though not required, our classroom pets are located in our Science Center.
It's important to keep all classroom pets way from direct sunlight and any drafts. I do not recommend a hood lamp for millipede enclosures. Hood lamps can be very drying and the bright direct light can become too hot. Millipedes enjoy the shade and darkness, and can be kept comfortable with a temperature between 60-80 degrees fahrenheit.
The most important basic need for a millipede is the substrate. Substrate is the layer or layers of ground cover, specifically designed for the housed creature. Millipedes need a semi moist environment, that simulates the forest floor (gradually more moist towards the bottom). As one of natures most impressive compost makers, millipedes eat the decaying organic matter and minerals found on and just under the forest floor. Millipede substrate should have decaying leaf matter, decaying wood and loose soil (clean from pesticides). Minerals, such as calcium, are added to help provide needed nutrients that would normally be found in an unrestricted environment.
Out of the three types of substrate we tried in our millipede habitat, the one that seemed the most nutrient dense and well mixed, came from Josh's Frogs. The bag was large enough to provide our millipedes with much more than four inches in our five gallon enclosure, giving them a deep enough area to dig and eat their maze of tunnels through. As an added benefit, the Josh's Frogs Milli Mix Calcium Enriched Millipede and Isopod Substrate has been pre-mixed with calcium. Calcium is needed in the millipede diet for a healthy exoskeleton. The substrate smelled clean and earthy.
Since substrate doesn't require frequent changes, the specialized mix from Josh's Frogs lasts for extended periods of time. As time goes on, adding more calcium to the substrate is important, since it becomes depleted. As the millipedes breakdown and digest the substrate, they will leave frass that resembles brownish-black balls. When amending substrate, frass should be removed. If an enclosure has been set up correctly and depending on the amount of millipedes in the enclosure, changing or amending substrate may not be required for a month or more.
While millipedes get the majority of their nutrition from the substrate, they are limited. If you use the addition of a cleanup crew (Springtails), nutrients like calcium can be depleted from the substrate more rapidly. Once a week, we give our millipedes small amounts of fruits and vegetables, such as: carrot, banana and banana peel, leafy greens, and apple. Additionally, once a week we offer a small amount of mixed Repashy Bug Burger, as a whole nutrient meal. I make enough to freeze for the month. I break off enough for their feeding and let it thaw before adding it to the enclosure. Even though millipedes like decaying food, any food placed in the enclosure needs to be removed after one or two days.
Once a month, I amend much of the enclosures substrate with Repashy Supercal MeD Micro-Fine Calcium Supplement. Calcium is extremely important in an isopod diet. Without it, millipede exoskeletons won't develop properly and deformations or death can happen during a molt (image of "Eggs" molting).
Moist enclosures tend to provide the perfect environment for mold growth. One of the best ways to manage unwanted waste and mold is using Springtails. Springtails are nearly invisible arthropods. Don't let their size fool you, they are one of the best cleaners for terrariums and vivariums. In optimum habitats, they can multiply quickly and only a small culture is needed to start cleaning up your millipede enclosure. They typically wouldn't survive outside the enclosure and will stay inside. Springtails aren't harmful to humans. On rare occasions, my students are able to see a few on the sides of the enclosure walls, using their magnifying glasses. When food has spent some time in the food dish, Springtails can be seen "cleaning up" the decaying portions. Cleanup crews help keep the millipede habitat smelling fresh and will keep unwanted odors from entering your classroom.
It's VERY important to remember that millipedes aren't poisonous, but can secrete a fluid that could possibly irritate some individuals. As a strict rule, washing hands before handling and a thorough soap scrubbing after handling is vital. If the millipede releases the glandular fluid, its usually a self-defense mechanism out of fear. The fluid must be washed off immediately and may leave skin discoloration for a limited period of time. I've not had any instances of negative reactions to millipedes, but still follow precautions. My scholars aren't allowed to handle the millipedes on their own, but are available for close observation at all times.
Millipedes are very docile creatures. Most don't mind being held gently and can become used to handling frequently, over time. To protect themselves, millipedes curl into a tight spiral. Never try to pry open the spiral of a millipede. They can be easily damaged. Instead, patiently holding the millipede in the palm of your hand will usually help the millipede to relax and open slowly. Some millipedes will open more quickly than others. As with any creature: the calmer you are, the calmer the creature will become.
Although the name millipede means "thousand feet", the typical millipede has less than 750 feet, when full grown. Each of the tiny pairs of feet have a fairly weak grip. It's important to hold the millipede over a table or other close surface. If they're dropped, they could have their exoskeleton damaged enough to become fatal.
Teaching Scholars About Millipedes
If you're looking for ways to teach your scholars about millipedes, I have a blog post that goes over what we learn about and the science kit available in my Teachers Pay Teachers shop. I use the science kit to teach my own scholars about our classroom pets, each year. It's full of real pictures and hands-on activities for learning about these amazing creatures.
Click the image below, to be taken to the blog post:
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