Giant foot-long flesh-eating centipedes are devouring the seabird population on an Australian island.
Scientists have recorded the first known examples of the behaviour on Phillip Island in which the large creepy crawlies use a potent venom to kill their prey.
Details of the findings were published in The American Naturalist in which the scientists describe the centipedes as the leading predators on the island.
According to the study, the Phillip Island centipedes feasted on a range of foods including geckos, skinks, fish scraps, and most noticeably black-winged petrel chicks.
In their findings, the scientists wrote: "The Phillip Island centipede diet is represented by vertebrate animals (48%) and invertebrates (52%), with 30.5% consisting of squamates, including the Lord Howe Island skink and Günther’s island gecko.
"7.9% consisting of black-winged petrel nestlings; and 9.6% consisting of marine fishes scavenged from regurgitated seabird meals."
When targeting the black-winged petrel nestlings the centipede firstly attacked the hind neck and would tear at the flesh followed by attacking the head, and soft tissue at the lower skull.
One of the scientists involved in the study wrote in The Conversation: “We eventually began to see consistent injury patterns among chicks that were killed. We even witnessed one centipede attacking and eating a chick.”
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This centipede can grow to almost one foot (or 30.5cm) in length and is armed with two pincer-like appendages called “forcipules”, which release the venom to immobilise its prey.
Scientists found that the centipedes kill between 2,109 and 3,724 chicks each year on the island and there are around 19,000 breeding pairs.
It is understood that the purpose of their gruesome killing is to trap nutrients brought in from the seas by the birds and then distribute these across the island.
The scientist added: "As a driver of nutrient transfer, the persistence of the Phillip Island centipede (and its healthy appetite) might just be key to the island’s ecosystem recovery."
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