Although most arthropod species have a fixed number of body segments, one order of centipedes – the Geophilomorpha – provides an unusual opportunity to study the variation and microevolution of segment number. This is because all species in all but one family exhibit variation in the number of leg-bearing segments (LBS) within and between natural populations. One species in particular, the coastal geophilomorph Strigamia maritima, has become a ‘model system’ for these studies, because of its high population densities and the consequent ease of collecting large samples. Previous studies on this species have examined various aspects of segment number variation. However, most studies have characterized each population by an LBS distribution and a mean LBS number that are based on data from all life-stages. Here, we dissect the variation within as well as between populations and show that different cohorts within a population often have significantly different LBS number distributions. This is almost certainly due to developmental plasticity, probably related to the prevailing microhabitat temperature within brood chambers, but possibly related to other environmental factors too. Although we found no evidence of selection, the fact that different species of geophilomorphs have different LBS distributions suggests that, in the long term, selection may act on the developmental reaction norm of LBS number. © 2012 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2012, 107, 678–685.