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What is a scolopender?

November 17, 2010

In many tropical gardens you may find scolopenders (giant centipedes). As they are mainly nocturnal, you may not see them very often. Here in Thailand I have only seen two specimens in four years.

Since they are predators they do help you with pest management, but you do not want them near your house because they may inflict a venomous and very painful bite (due to serotonin, cardiotoxins, haemotoxins and cytolysins). Such a bite is usually chevron shaped, and may cause swelling, itching, enlarged lymph nodes and even fever and vomiting. Non-steroid anti-inflammatory lotions should be applied, and antihistamine is useful too. If you are allergic to wasps or ants or have heart problems you should seek medical attention immediately. Since the bite is very painful, a healthy person may still want to get painkillers from a doctor. However, one experienced man said that not even morphine helps. The pain usually go away after 4-12 hours. A bite might become necrotic and infected, which is why you need to clean the wound with water and soap. Drink diuretic liquids such as sparkling water and keep the limb high to let blood out of the swollen (compressed) area, thereby preventing tissue death due to lack of oxygen resulting from compression.

Scolopenders like hiding areas such as composts, pots, fire wood stacks and branch piles, so they should be located far away from the house. If your garden is full of wildlife, many predators such as mongoose and tockay geckos will feed on the scolopenders, keeping them at low numbers.

The most common scolopender in Chiang Mai is the giant red scolopender  Scolopendra subspinipes. It can reach 2 dm in length.

Another centipede found in damp areas such as the Dokmai Garden nurseries, is Scutigera coleoptrata. It runs like the wind, 15 body lengths a second or 0.4 m/s. This is a long-legged but small (25-50 mm) and harmless creature, which feeds on insects including termites.

According to the Buddhist monk ‘Phra Bon Ma Wat Shiva Ya Noo’ at ‘Wat Muen Ngern Gong’ temple inside the Chiang Mai moat, the soul trapped inside a scolopender’s body is miserable and lonely. To help the soul being reborn into a less frightening creature, some temples display pictures of scolopenders during the period between ‘One Pan Sa’ (October 23) and ‘Loi Kratong’ (the upcoming light festival on November 21). This period is called ‘Boon Gating’. Killing a scolopender or any other creature intentionally is a bad act according to this monk. Killing as a result of accident, self defence or hunger is acceptable, but you need to ask the animal’s soul for forgiveness afterwards.

Many native American tribes have a similar respect for life. Since they are descendants of people in East Asia, this shared respect for life is probably at least as old as the time of their migration to America some 20 000 years ago. This does not mean that all East Asians and native Americans live according to these thoughts (remember the many wars and recent devastating deforestations), but What a lovely world if all people treated all life with such care! The Thai monks and scientists do have an important role in Thai society, balancing ignorance and stupidity. Christian priests also try to remind people not to treat the creation like toilet paper, and I was most impressed by a Thai catholic priest visiting Dokmai Garden, who said that the creation is much vaster than what people who wrote the Holy Bible ever could imagine. To him, with the latest astronomical research in mind, God created many worlds.

To me, being a pantheist, the different religions are different cultural expressions of the same basic wonder. A problem is that many religious people are obsessed about their imperfect gurus, their words, imaginations, rituals, buildings and books, forgetting the actual creation. If you hold a religious text in your hand, you hold a text full of errors, simplifications and obsolete misunderstandings, because it was written by men, men who only shared a fraction of our knowledge. If you hold a leaf in your hand there are no lunatic middlemen or charlatans between you and the creative force. Muhammad realized people tend to forget the creation after observing the worship of the many Christian saints (similar to Buddhist or Norse spirit worship). To make sure people did not deviate from adoring the creative force and the actual creation, he banned illustrations to which people tend to cling to like teddy bears. The shahada of the Quran is ‘There is no God but Allah’, but ironically, in spite of Muhammad’s efforts to make sure people would admire the creator only, later muslims added ‘..and Muhammad is his messenger’ opening up to the worship of a series of documents written long after Muhammad’s death. Muhammad would probably cry of despair if he learnt that some modern students in medicine spend more time reading the man-made religious texts rather than studying the actual creation of Allah (science).

The scientists are the prophets of our time. They continuously revise and expand our view of the creation way beyond the horizon of the old prophets, even explaining the beautiful mechanisms such as the divine evolution of species. Each scientist’s contribution is puny, but the combined knowledge so vast no man can grasp it in a lifetime. This fact shows the magnitude of the creation far better than a single religious text. Planting a tree is a sacred act, clearing a forest to build a temple is not.

Eric Danell

Ketsanee Seehamongkol is a devoted Buddhist, which is one of many ways to honour the wonder of life.

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