The word shongololo is the common name for the giant African millipede (Archispirostreptus gigas), the largest species of millipede. The name is derived from the isiZulu and Xhosa word 'ukushonga' which means 'to roll up'.
These millipedes can grow up to 30cm in length with over a hundred segments. Illacme plenipes, a rare species of millipede, holds the record for the most number of legs, with 750, but most species have between 36 and 400 legs, a far cry from the 1 000, that their name suggests.
Often confused with centipedes, the two are easily differentiated by the number of legs (more in the millipede) and the body shape (flattened in the centipede). Millipedes are slow moving creatures which eat only leaves and decaying plant matter, while the speedy centipede is an aggressive predator. Although they can cause enormous amounts of damage to small seedlings, millipedes are peace-loving creatures and even make good pets. Centipedes bite when they feel threatened!
Unable to sting or bite, shongololos roll up in a ball to protect themselves, hence the name, although some species can secrete poisonous gases or fluid from their pores to deter predators. These secretions can harm the exoskeletons of ants and other hunting insects and irritate the eyes of birds and mammals. Mostly this liquid tastes bad, making the shongololo an unpopular dish amongst most animals, with the exception of civets and some birds.
Unlike centipedes, which have one set of legs per body segment, the shongololos segments fuse in pairs so they have two sets of legs for every segment. The last segment, or tail, of the millipede has no legs, instead it bears a set of protuberances which protect the sensitive hind parts. Likewise, the segment directly behind the head has no legs and the following three fused segments have only one set of legs. While in motion, the legs start moving from behind in a wave-like motion.
Male shongololos, which are greatly outnumbered by the female of the species, have two or more gonopods in place of legs, which they use to transfer sperm into the females reproductive organs.
Shongololos are usually black or brown in colour, and can live for up to seven years, growing larger as they age. They are born with just three sets of legs, adding segments to their bodies as they grow.
Each time a segment is added, the millipede sheds its skin, which it eats, although sometimes you may come across these ghosts of the shongololo while out on a game walk or even in camp.