Who hasn't had the experience of encountering a giant spider, with big scary eyes and creepy crawly legs? Fear, followed by a frenzied attempt to swat the intruder into a juicy pulp is almost a universal reaction to spiders. They aren't cute, they can't be taught to do tricks or chase a ball and they don't seem to serve a purpose, at least not when they've wandered into someone's home uninvited.
The camel spider is arguably one of the scariest examples, however, most people don't realize that they aren't actually spiders. They resemble somewhat of a cross between spiders and their scary cousin, the scorpion, but within the class of arachnids, they are an order all their own, known as Solifugae.
While known by a variety of names such as wind scorpion, sun spider or baardskeerders (An Afrikaans word for beard cutter), there isn't a great deal that is known about these animals. A recent study however, has shed light on their most noticeable feature, their gaping jaws.
The study was a group effort, with scientists from The American Museum of Natural History, the National Museum of Namibia, and Texas A&M University teaming up to analyze the specific anatomy of the jaws of the solifugae. Within the order there are over a thousand different species and they are often identified by the differences in the structure, shape and movements of their jaws and mouthparts. The problem is that there has been no standard terminology to correctly classify the different species.
Lorenzo Prendini, one of the paper's authors and a curator at the Division of Invertebrate Zoology at the American Museum of Natural History said in a press release about the study, "Our limited understanding of the incredible jaws of these arachnids, together with terminology that is unstandardized and even contradictory, has hindered our ability to classify them and figure out where they fit in the arachnid tree of life because, much like the cranial anatomy of vertebrates, the jaws of solifuges contain most of the relevant information. The last time there was a major publication of this kind on camel spiders was in 1934, which, considering how conspicuous and ubiquitous they are in some parts of the world, is almost unbelievable."
Gathering the information for the study was extremely difficult. The team studied 188 species of solifugae, some from the collections at the museums, but others that were collected by Prendini and study lead author Tharina Bird on expeditions into the habitats of the arachnids, typically hot, dry desert areas. Many of the solifugae species can literally run at speeds approaching 10 miles per hour, they can kill and eat prey that are twice their size and they are nocturnal, so any observation of their behavior has to happen in the dead of night. Not exactly a dream trip, trooping around in the desert at night in search of a large, aggressive arachnid that can likely outrun some humans.
The team was able to compare high-resolution microscopy images to existing information and develop approximately 80 terms describing the anatomy and function of the jaw area. Going forward, the team hopes that their work will help other researchers identify and classify species uniformly so that more can be discovered about these mysterious creatures.
Their paper is published in the Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History.
Check out the video below for more information on these leggy creatures.
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