Solifugae – The Shade Seekers of the Savannah

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Solifugae are one of the most maligned creatures you may be lucky enough to come across on your South African safari.
Also known as sun spiders or wind scorpions, solifugae are neither. They actually belong in a genus of their own and are anatomically different from both other arachnids. The Latin term Solifugae means 'flee from the sun' and refers to their preference for shady spots.

Despite their shade-loving tendencies, solifugae are well adapted to survive in a desert environment, although they are also found in grassland, forest and scrub habitats.

Tall Desert Tales

Solifugae enjoyed their 15 minutes of internet fame during the early 1990's thanks to US soldiers in Iraq who posted forced-perspective photographs of the ferocious looking arachnids on social media. In truth, even the largest sun spiders rarely grow to 15cm in length.

The troops also spread rumours about these monsters devouring their camels and comrades alive. Hence the name 'camel spider'. In South Africa, solifugae are commonly known as sun spiders, red romans, or haarskeerders ("hair cutters").

Old wives' tales relate how these creatures would creep up on you in your sleep and chew off your hair to line their nests. Nothing could be further from the truth. Their sandy burrows are in fact singularly dull, being just a hole in the ground.

Sun spiders can deliver a painful bite when cornered but these injuries are seldom harmful. With a top speed of 16 km per hour they could never outrun a camel, but they could probably catch a really slow soldier. While their appearance can be a little alarming to some, they are totally harmless to humans, lacking venom and any interest in gobbling up mere mortals or camels!

The Real Deal

They can catch termites, darkling beetles and other small earthbound insects which they track down and trap by means of their two front 'legs', or pedipalps, which serve as antenna. A sticky substance on the end of the pedipalps traps the prey and holds it while the chelicerae (mouthparts) break it into pieces. Always ready to grasp any opportunity, sun spiders will also eat small lizards, snakes and rodents given the chance. In turn bats, scorpions and toads prey on solifugae.

The far-fetched legends surrounding the sun spider are almost as interesting as the arachnid itself, and make great fireside stories. Ask your ranger to fill in some more of the details for you during your stay with the Thornybush Collection.

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Thursday, 14 December 2017