Paper boats of the desert
What has a hump, lives in the desert, and has eight legs? A camel spider, of course. One moonlit night, as I walked through a patch of scrub jungle just north of the Karnataka border at Chikkaballapur, I was near convinced that the dim light from my dying torch was pursuing a tarantula. Leaving nothing to chance, I quickly assembled my camera equipment, went back to the spot and made friends with a camel spider — also called wind scorpion, sun spider, and beard cutter depending on where you are. In India, there are records of individuals being spotted in deserts and other arid regions across the country.
The eight legs are typically why this enigma of the desert is often mistaken for a spider. Despite the resemblance to spiders, they actually belong to the order Solifugae, which separates them from spiders (order Araneae), scorpions (order Scorpiones), and other arachnids. With their size, eight legs, and overall appearance, the ‘spider’ in their name is more apparent than the camel half. The camel in the name comes from the hump like shape of their prosoma (front half of the body) as well the fact that they are most commonly found in deserts and arid regions.
In arid lands they’re typically found in burrows or hiding under rocks until nightfall when it is time to hunt. The word ‘Solifugae’ roughly translates to ‘those who flee from the sun’, a name that aptly describes the camel spider’s nocturnal lifestyle as well as its ability to move incredibly fast.
The fuel guzzling Ferrari of the Kalahari
Camel spiders feel the need, the need for speed. Reaching speeds of up to 16 kmph, they’ve earned a rather creative name around some parts of the Kalahari Desert, the ‘Ferrari of the Kalahari’. With the need for speed also comes a need to feed. For a creature that is approximately six inches long, moving at these speeds and actively chasing down prey through the night demands a lot of energy. Their extremely high metabolic rates supply this energy, but requires them to eat constantly. Solifugids are not picky eaters and have been documented to eat everything from small insects to birds. While there is very little information on solifugids and their feeding behaviour, one interesting phenomenon is their interaction with ants. A few months ago, I had the pleasure of witnessing this first-hand.
I watched with a mix of confusion, astonishment and horror as a Solifugae approached an ant colony with the momentum and stealth of a freight train. What proceeded was a mass murder of the ants around the entrance to the colony. There are records from around the world of camel spiders performing these ‘ant massacres’. The interesting thing about these mass murders is that the camel spider does not eat the ants. It simply mauls through ants until it is surrounded by a heap of dismembered ant body parts. While some scientists suggest that the camel spider is simply preparing a meal for a later time, others argue that it is simply clearing the inhabitants of the colony to take over the burrow.
Captain long-jaw slither
Among the many differences between true spiders and camel spiders is the inability of the latter to generate silk or venom. Without webs to capture their prey or venom to incapacitate them, camel spiders rely on a combination of incredible speed and good old-fashioned bite power. The jaws of a camel spider are nearly one-third of its body length! Like other arachnids, their mouth parts are made up of chelicerae (their equivalent of jaws). The easiest way to imagine a camel spider’s jaw is to imagine two very powerful crab claws stuck next to each other. Each of these parts is lined with razor sharp teeth and sensory organs. The end result quite resembles the mouth of the ‘Predator’ from the first predator movie.
As with their close relative the spider, solifugids also have organs called pedipalps close to their mouth. In the few complete mating cycles of the camel spider that have been observed, the male is seen cautiously approaching the female and caressing her with his palps. In a phenomenon that remains unexplained, much like other traits of Solifugaes, the female enters a trance when she is touched by the male. The male proceeds to use his powerful mouthparts in unison with his palps to less than gracefully deposit sperm into the female’s genitals. A theory for the trance is that the female enters a zombie-like state to be able to endure the less than pleasant nature of the male’s courtship manners. An explanation for the male’s behaviour is that the vicious process could potentially remove any sperm deposited in the female by mates before him — insecurity in the male of the species isn’t limited to humans.
Rumour has it!
During the war in Iraq in the early 2000s, one image gained instant fame among those who considered mass forwarded emails to be a reliable source of current affairs. In the year 2004, a photo of two solifugids that appeared to be the size of a soldier’s leg went viral. Of course, this was a perspective shot — the soldier’s leg was farther away from the camera than the camel spiders. With our penchant for creating monsters out of just about anything for the thrill of it, the tales of the creature seen in the picture reached new heights. Stories were told of how they could grow to half the size of a human and that they could chase down camels to eat their stomachs.
Aside from their name in the Kalahari, in South Africa, camel spiders are called ‘beard cutters’. A popular myth suggests that they trim the hair and beards of anybody sleeping on the ground and use the hair to line their burrows.
Lessons from nature
The myths and legends that surround the camel spider are a testament to how little we understand them. A little over 1,000 species have been documented across the world and in most cases the description of the species comes from a single specimen. As most scientists that have studied these elusive creatures will tell you, they are quite rare to come by (despite their presence on nearly every continent) and there are very few dedicated efforts anywhere in the world to understand them better.
Nature is full of lessons and intrigue and humans learn from it, from the beak of the kingfisher that helped create more efficient bullet trains in Japan, to the termite mounds that inspired better ventilation systems in Zimbabwe. Besides the immediate applications of lessons from nature, understanding the natural world and our fellow inhabitants of this planet like the Solifugae could be vital in informing our actions. It is knowledge that could unveil the delicate balance that holds our world together, and reveal actions that could either pull us back from the brink of an ecological catastrophe, or give us a not-so-gentle nudge over the edge.