A look at man’s fear of spiders starting with the Solifugae, or “Camel Spider”–a large desert-dwelling arachnid of Iraq that may have been brought to Texas by American soldiers that served there, and then a trek into the jungles of Venezuela in search of other massive arachnids that some local villagers claim are large enough to eat a small dog.
Solifugae is an order of animals in the class Arachnida. They are known variously as camel spiders, wind scorpions, sun spiders or solifuges. The order includes more than 1,000 described species in about 153 genera. The Solifugae is a different order from the true spiders (order Araneae) and the scorpions (order Scorpiones). Much like a spider, the body of a Solifugid has two tagmata: an opisthosoma (abdomen) behind the prosoma (that is, in effect, a combined head and thorax). At the front end, the prosoma bears two chelicerae that, in most species, are conspicuously large. The chelicerae serve as jaws and in many species also are used for stridulation. Unlike scorpions, solifugids do not have a third tagma that forms a “tail”. Most species of Solifugae live in dry climates and feed opportunistically on ground-dwelling arthropods and other small animals. The largest species grow to a length of 12–15 cm (5–6 in), including legs. A number of urban legends exaggerate the size and speed of Solifugae, and their potential danger to humans, which is practically nil.
Solifugids and humans
Solifugids have been recognised as distinct taxa from ancient times. The Greeks recognized that they were distinct from spiders; spiders were called ἀράχνη (arachne) while Solifugae were named φαλάγγιον (phalangion). In Aelian’s De natura animalium they are mistakenly mentioned, along with scorpions, as responsible for the abandoning of a country in Ethiopia. Anton August Heinrich Lichtenstein theorised in 1797 that the “mice” which plagued the Philistines in the Old Testament were Solifugae. During World War I, troops stationed in Abū Qīr, Egypt would stage fights between captive jerrymanders, as they referred to them, and placed bets on the outcome. Similarly, British troops stationed in Libya in World War II would stage fights between Solifugae and scorpions.:2–3
Solifugae are the subject of many urban legends and exaggerations about their size, speed, behaviour, appetite, and lethality. They are not especially large, the biggest having a leg span of about 12 cm (4.7 in). They are fast on land compared to other invertebrates with their top speed estimated to be 16 km/h (10 mph), about one third as fast as the fastest human sprinter. Members of this order of Arachnida apparently have no venom, with the possible exception of one species in India (Rhagodes nigrocinctus) as suggested in one study, and do not spin webs.
Due to their bizarre appearance, many people are startled by or even afraid of them. This fear was sufficient to drive a family from their home when one was discovered in a soldier’s house in Colchester, England and caused the family to blame the solifugid for the death of their pet dog. They are non-venomous, although they are capable of inflicting a painful bite with their powerful jaws