Tuesday, May 7, 2013

My Pet Camel Spider

His name is Wilhelm.
In my EEMB 116 class on the higher invertebrates, we're supposed to make an insect collection for our final project. This entails a lot of wandering around in the bushes at night, and on Friday I found a camel spider. You may have heard of them from Iraq veterans, or seen this famous photo (which is actually two camel spiders stuck together):

Although camel spiders (also known as wind scorpions or sun scorpions) can grow to up to 6 inches in length, they are rarely dangerous to humans and the myths you may have heard about them aren't true: they don't eat the stomachs of camels, scream while they run at you, or bite off chunks of peoples' flesh while they sleep. During the Iraq war, soldiers would often pit camel spiders against scorpions or other creepy-crawlies for amusement, and place bets on the outcome. They actually aren't scorpions at all; they belong to the order Solifugae, a sister order of both scorpions and spiders.

Camel spiders can run at up to 10 mph, about one third as fast as the fastest human sprinter; they are aggressive and will attack and subdue prey three times their own size. Their large chelicerae can cut through the bone of small animals, and they often use them to make a rattling noise. Although they aren't venomous, their bite is very painful. My solpugid's legs are quite long in proportion to his body size, so I think he is a male, although I haven't been able to get a close enough look at his chelicerae to see if they have the distinctive flagella at the ends. Their first pair of legs are actually pedipalps (similar to a tarantula's), and are used in feeding, fighting, and as sensory organs. They also feature eversible suction cups that allow the camel spider to climb vertical surfaces (I found this out to alarming effect). Camel spiders are visual hunters, with sophisticated central eyes that bridge the gap between simple ocelli and the compound eyes of true insects, like bees or dragonflies.

Most people who come into contact with them are terrified, but I found this testament from a soldier named Nicole, who was stationed in Afghanistan and kept one as a pet:

"I really hate to be the only one not perpetuating all the hype about Camel Spiders, but as you can see from my pictures they are really not that bad. They are like any other creature and can be very tame.  I had this one for about six months while I was in Afghanistan. She was quite beautiful and sweet.  They are not poisonous, but their bite does hurt very badly and tends to get infected due to lack of hygiene in the areas they are usually encountered. I was never bitten, but it did take a while to calm her down enough to be able to hold her. I never saw her jump or run in six months. She would let me pet her and hold her for hours. I loved my camel spider even though most thought I was crazy…I miss her and wish I could have brought her home with me."

By all accounts, camel spiders are difficult to keep in captivity; we got two a couple of weeks ago for my invertebrate lab and so far only one has held on. This is in part because camel spiders will only eat live prey. Wilhelm eats pinhead crickets, which are about 1/3 his size, every other day; he holds perfectly still until a cricket approaches, and then attacks and consumes his prey in under 30 seconds.

Although most people believe camel spiders live only in the deserts of the Middle East, several species are native to the Southwestern U.S. and Mexico, where they are called "matevenados" (deer killers). We have one species here in Santa Barbara, and it's usually found in arid regions up in the mountains, although I found mine roaming the bank of Atascadero Creek, pretty close to campus. Come talk to me if you have any questions or want to see him; I'm trying to keep him alive until the end of the quarter!


John Latto said...

I hadn't heard them called 'deer killers'. That's excellent. As is the name Wilhelm for a spider.

I drove to Jalama beach once many years ago and came across dozens of tarantulas all crossing the road. Very strange, I had no idea they had a seasonal migration to their breeding grounds. I don't think I've ever seen a tarantula here since.

Anonymous said...

i live in colorado and caught one. what kind of habitat should i set up for it/? sand? dirt? a mixture? are crickets good food for it?

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