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What is a Peripatus?

By Anna Harrison
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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A Peripatus is a tropical invertebrate in the onychophora family that lives in areas of Australia, New Zealand, Asia, and Africa, as well as parts of South America. Often called a velvet worm or walking worm, it is actually not a worm at all. It is much like an arthropod, but it has an internal structure more similar to an annelid such as the lobster and spider. It has an unsegmented, smooth body that can be several inches or centimeters long and numerous hollow legs with claws at the ends. These carnivorous creatures are nocturnal, feeding at night on small insects and the remains of larger, dead insects.

The Peripatus has a moist, dark habitat, preferring to live on forest floors, under rocks, or in rotten logs. They avoid daylight and therefore are not often seen by humans. These slow moving animals have insatiable appetites, and search for prey using their antennae, which squirts out a sticky substance that immobilizes and entraps their victim. The Peripatus can then bite into its prey and suck out their entrails. The stickiness of this substance does not last long, which keeps it from adhering to the mouth of the Peripatus as it devours its victim.

Mating is accomplished by the male depositing a spermatophore, which is a pouch containing sperm, on the back of the female, which she then absorbs. A female may mate just once in her entire lifetime. She may have several embryos in different stages of growth at the same time.

This family of invertebrates is unique, in that it has several different ways of reproducing within its species. Some actually have a uterus and placenta and give birth to live young. Others are similar to marsupials and protect their babies in pouches, while still other lay eggs. A female Peripatus can produce as many as 40 young in one year. They abandon their babies at birth, leaving them to fend for themselves.

The Peripatus has been called a living fossil and may have been in existence over 500 million years ago. This is disputed by some biologists, who think a very similar organism called Aysheaia actually lived that long ago. These worms were aquatic, however; since a Peripatus lives on land, it is unlikely that they were the same species. Even so, this animal has been around for a very long time.

These bizarre looking creatures have begun to be kept as household pets in some areas and need special care to survive. While other invertebrates require heat, a Peripatus needs a cool, damp place to live and insects to feed upon. It should also have something to hide under, such as leaves or bark, with soft rotted matter underneath. The temperature should remain fairly constant, at about 68° Fahrenheit (20° Celsius).

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