Camel Spiders: Behind an E-Mail Sensation From Iraq

Cameron Walker
for National Geographic News
June 29, 2004
This spring, an arachnophobe's biggest nightmare started to pop up in e-mail in-boxes.

A photo of two huge spiders, each the size of a man's calf, was accompanied by an alarming note. The sender said his or her friend—or friend of a friend—knew a soldier stationed in Iraq who had said that these spiders could inject a sleeping soldier with anesthetic, then chew out a chunk of flesh.

Creepy? Yes. But arachnid experts say it's a hoax.

In fact, the creatures in the photo aren't spiders at all. They're actually solpugids, or solifugids (aka camel spiders, aka wind scorpions). Along with spiders, they are members of the class Arachnida.

The eight-legged solifugids have no venom glands, and the largest species is no more than 15 centimeters (6 inches) long with its legs outstretched.

"If any solpugid has anything they can inject, I haven't heard of it," said Rod Crawford, an arachnologist at the Burke Museum in Seattle, Washington.

Crawford has been debunking this and other spider myths for several years. This rumor, he said, spread to Western countries during the 1990-91 Gulf War and has now reemerged and become even more widespread with the return of U.S. troops to Iraq.

"Wind Scorpions" Around the World

In an article in the July issue of National Geographic magazine, writer and photographer Mark W. Moffett tracks "wind scorpions" in the Middle East and closer to home. While in Baja California, Mexico, Moffett and arachnologist Warren Savary spotted a new species in a research station's collection.

"Just as we were about to leave … I spotted one jar that had something I thought I hadn't seen before," said Savary, a research associate at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. "I pulled it out and said, 'Oh my God!'"

The new species has a horn on the top of its mouthparts, something that no other species in North America has. "It was pretty easy to see that it was new," Savary said. The arachnologist plans to name the species after Actaeon, a mythical Greek hunter who was transformed into a stag.

In North America solifugids range from Mexico to southern Canada. They reach their greatest diversity in arid regions—one group of species even has comblike structures on their legs that may be an adaptation specifically for living in sand dunes.

A Scary Reputation

In Iraq the "camel spiders" have gotten all sorts of bad press. They are said to run as fast as 25 miles an hour (40 kilometers an hour), jump six feet (two meters) in the air, and lay their eggs inside a camel's belly.

The Middle East isn't the only place where solifugids have a bad name. In Mexico, they're known as matevenados, which translates as "deer killers." When he talks with people in Mexico about the solifugids, the first thing people say is how dangerous they are, Savary said. "You look really macho by picking them up," he said.

A solifugid's real diet includes insects, invertebrates, and sometimes small reptiles. "Their jaws have to be enormous, so they can crunch their prey before it crunches them back," Crawford said. The solifugid has no venom to subdue its prey.

While solifugids are extremely fast, their running and jumping ability have also been exaggerated by the e-mail tale.

In his story, Moffett describes one solifugid he met in Israel: "With beady eyes, a hairy body, and jaws that bulged like Popeye's forearms, it was something from a nightmare."

"They're really frightful looking," Savary agreed. "And if you corner one, it will … readily assume an aggressive stance." He became interested in solifugids by accident, while studying reptiles and amphibians in Baja California as an undergraduate. "One night, I fired up a lantern and a solifugid came running to it. I took one look and thought, Whoa, these things are strange!" He was completely converted: That summer, he was back in Baja California to collect solifugids, having left the study of reptiles and amphibians behind.

Solifugids are generally seasonal, nocturnal, and solitary hunters. "It takes a lot of effort to find them," Savary said. Most North American species lay their eggs in burrows or in woody crevices. Males begin to appear during spring, and then females can be spotted by early summer. By wintertime, only young solifugids are likely to be seen.

The camel spider caper seems to be just one example of spiders getting framed for scary crimes. Movies like Arachnophobia don't help improve their image. "People are afraid of spiders because they learned to be afraid of them from other kids and clueless adults and even Hollywood," Crawford said.

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