Specimen of the Week: Week Sixty-Seven
By Emma-Louise Nicholls, on 21 January 2013
In less than three months, my sister is going to fly to Morocco. To run one hundred and fifty six miles. Within six days. Through the Sahara Desert. Carrying everything she needs on her back. No, I’m not kidding. To add to this already incredible (or incredibly insane) feat, she is battling a hip injury AND, will be camping in the desert quite probably surrounded by armies of her worst nightmare. SPIDERS. Not original, but not to be made light of, arachnophobia is a real issue. Besides spiders (for which I fear there is no hope for her rehab), there is another species she may well also come across, that is in severe danger of, at first glance, resulting in arachnophobic shrieking. In an attempt to avoid slipper and flip-flop deployment should the two of them meet, I want to introduce you and her to this special species, in the hope that you both will reach a level of peaceful appreciation, or at the very least an understanding that they are not in fact spiders to be feared, and squished. This week’s Specimen of the Week is…
1) No they are NOT spiders, there’s no need to cover the picture up. They just really rather resemble spiders, that’s all. Solifugids are known (by those who are actually aware that they exist) by a range of names including solpugids, camel spiders, false spiders, roman spiders, sun spiders and wind scorpions. Even though they are not spiders, per se, for the sake of your reading fatigue, we shall choose the name ‘camel spiders’ to refer to them from now on. Despite not being well known, they are actually a large and diverse group.
2) Oh ok ok, they are related to spiders. Loosely. Well not that loosely. Camel spiders belong in the family Solifugidae which is an order within the class ‘Arachnida’. Yeah yeah alright, they are technically arachnids. But they are not spiders! They’re like… half brothers. Camel spiders, as I’m sure you’ve noticed from the images, have ten legs. See? Not spidery at all.
3) Despite having to coordinate so many legs, camel spiders are capable of tremendous speeds and can power across the sand at up to 53cm per second, in short bursts. That’s pretty fast FYI. Species range in total body length from the teeny tiny, just a few milimetres long, to the more substantial varieties of up to 10 centimetres. Every species of camel spider is a highly specialised predator. They have powerful segmented pincer-like appendages called chelicerae which aid their munching on prey.
4) Camel spiders are extremophiles. Oh yeah. This essentially means that they live in areas that exhibit extreme environmental conditions. They are subjected to very high temperatures in the daytime and extremely low temperatures and low relative humidity at night. Sounds like a lot of hard work. I mean if you went there on holiday, what would you pack?
5) Despite their affinity to spiders and scorpions, studies suggest that solifugids do not possess venom. See? Much friendlier. Errr… there may be one teeny tiny exception though. A camel spider found in India is potentially venomous, but that shouldn’t count against the entire group. And it’s unconfirmed anyway. In terms of arthropods (invertebrates with an exoskeleton, a segmented body and jointed legs), camel spiders rule the school in their environments. They prey upon insects and other arachnids such as various species of spider. There you are, they’re not friendly to spiders either, my sister and them could be the best of friends.
Special additional fact number 6) Camel spiders are the subject of very cool mimicry by a species of viper from western Iran. The tip of the tail is beige, bulbous and surrounded by scales that form ‘leg-like’ projections, making it look strikingly similar to a camel spider. This species of viper frequently feeds on birds, which frequently feed on camel spiders. By hiding in a bush with the tail poking out and wiggling it around, the viper lures birds and other desert-dwelling predators in, making them think they’re about to get a camel spider flavoured lunch. The snake then launches out and grabs the would-be predator, making them into snake-prey. Clever.
Emma-Louise Nicholls is the Museum Assistant at the Grant Museum of Zoology