Amazing facts about…Peripatus

By Ann Graeme

It‘s called a “velvet worm” though it looks like an extra-long caterpillar. But it has too many legs for a caterpillar and the legs are not jointed as insect legs are. Its legs suggest the paired appendages of a segmented worm and so do its simple eyes.

Peripatus. Photo: Rod Morris

Peripatus. Photo: Rod Morris

So what is a peripatus (say it pah-rip-ah-tuss) and and how many New Zealanders even know we have this strange creature living in our forests and even our backyards?

Its ancestors have been walking on Earth for more than 500 million years.

It is a shy and retiring animal and it can only live in very moist places. It hides by day but at night it comes out to hunt – and what a hunter it is.

On its many legs it motors slowly and smoothly through the leaf litter, feeling – for it can scarcely see – with its antennae for an insect or worm.

Then from the sides of its head it squirts its prey with twin streams of sticky white glue. The glue hardens on contact and immobilises its prey.

Peripatus then chews a hole in its victim, spits in saliva and sucks out the partly digested innards at its leisure.

Its reproduction is remarkable too.

On the back of a female a male peripatus will lay a parcel of sperm, which dissolve through her skin to fertilise her eggs. She will give birth, not to eggs but to live babies.

In New Zealand we have five named species. Peripatuses are also found in Australia, Tasmania, South-East Asia, South Africa and Central and South America. No animal has provoked more zoological debate.

The peripatus belongs on a twig that shared the ancestral branch in the evolutionary tree with modern arthropods, which include insects and crustaceans.

Peripatuses are not uncommon though you’ll seldom find many in one place.

They live in damp and secluded places — under stones, in rotting wood, under the bark of fallen logs and in leaf litter. Mostly they live in native forests but they can also be found among tussocks in the high country, in remnants of forest in paddocks, in city parks and even in gardens.