Centipede systematics

Cormocephalus hartmeyeri showing maternal brood care - an evolutionary novelty with a single origin in the Chilopoda © Gonzalo Giribet

Principal Investigator

Dr Greg Edgecombe 

Project summary

  • Focus: The phylogenetics of all major centipede groups based on novel morphological and molecular data

Our research on centipedes (Chilopoda) includes studies on deep phylogeny and phylogeography, the taxonomy of most major groups, comparative morphology, and palaeontology, including amber fossils from the Mesozoic and Cenozoic.

Chilopoda includes some 3,500 living species. Centipedes' geological record extends back to the Silurian, deep into the history of soil and litter animal assemblages.

Centipede phylogeny 

There is a wide variation in trunk segment numbers between centipede species. Due to this, they have become an important model in evolutionary developmental biology for studies of segmentation.

To understand the evolutionary context of centipede segmentation we need a phylogeny on which gene expression and developmental characteristics can be mapped. We are working to develop a robust phylogenetic tree for Chilopoda.

In collaboration with Prof Gonzalo Giribet of Harvard University, we have produced a dataset for nuclear ribosomal and mitochondrial genes, which samples the major centipede lineages. Increasingly, it also samples the diversity of Chilopoda at finer taxonomic levels and draws on transcriptomic data.

We analyse these data in combination with a large body of morphological evidence. Our current work on higher-level centipede phylogeny expands the molecular coverage and adds novel morphological data.

Relationships between major groups of centipedes (paintings by Barbara Duperron, after Giribet and Edgecombe, 2006)


Scutigeromorph centipedes

The Australian Biological Resources Study supports our systematic work on centipedes as part of its project on the systematics of Australian scutigeromorph centipedes and the phylogeny of the Scutigeromorpha (house centipedes) based on morphological and molecular data.

Our phylogenetic analysis of the Scutigeromorpha, carried out in collaboration with Gonzalo Giribet's lab at Harvard University, uses morphology and sequence data from six molecular markers. Scanning electron microscopy has revealed new characteristics for phylogenetics and taxonomy.

The scutigeromorphs are important for work on arthropod phylogeny because they lie at the base of the centipede tree and display some characteristics (such as compound eyes) not otherwise seen in myriapods.

We are working to document the scutigeromorph fauna of Australia, which includes perhaps one quarter of all global species. Our collections come from extensive surveys by Australian agencies since the 1970s, which include under-sampled regions (notably the arid zone), and from new fieldwork to source material for DNA sequencing.

Museum staff



Fernández R, Laumer CE, Vahtera V, Libro S, Kaluziak S, Sharma PP, Peréz-Porro AR, Edgecombe GD, Giribet G (2014) Evaluating topological conflict in centipede phylogenetics using transcriptomic datasets. Molecular Biology and Evolution, 31:1500-1513.

Giribet G, Edgecombe GD (2013) Stable phylogenetic patterns in scutigeromorph centipedes (Myriapoda: Chilopoda: Scutigeromorpha): dating the diversification of an ancient lineage of terrestrial arthropods. Invertebrate Systematics, 27:485-501.

Vahtera V, Edgecombe GD, Giribet G (2013) Phylogenetics of scolopendromorph centipedes: Can denser taxon sampling improve an artificial classification? Invertebrate Systematics, 27:578-602.

Edgecombe GD, Vahtera V, Stock SR, Kallonen A, Xiao X, Rack A, Giribet G (2012) A scolopocryptopid centipede (Chilopoda: Scolopendromorpha) from Mexican amber: synchrotron microtomography and phylogenetic placement using a combined morphological and molecular dataset. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, 166:768-786.

Koch M, Edgecombe GD (2012) The preoral chamber in geophilomorph centipedes: comparative morphology, phylogeny and the evolution of centipede feeding structures. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, 165:1-62.

Origins, evolution and futures

We study the Earth's origins and environment, and the evolution of life.

Invertebrate and plant palaeobiology research

We are investigating the origins and evolution of these diverse fossil groups.

Palaeontology collections

The geographic, stratigraphic and historical coverage of fossils in the collection make it globally important.