Child-Of-The-Earth (Solifugae)

The Essays of Frances Williams ~ April, 1965

Published Aug 27th 2017 in Wildlife, Solifugae, Wind Scorpion, Sun Spider, Animal Behavior

Ants busily crisscrossed an almost bare spot in a pasture. Near their trail was a hole about as large as a half dollar. At frequent intervals, a slightly fuzzy, many-legged animal darted from the hole, grabbed an ant, and returned to its lair. The movements of this voracious creature were so quick that the MIDNATS watching could not see it long enough to identify it. As it continued its forays on the ant population, its characteristics were gradually revealed: eight legs, longer than the body itself; two long feelers extending in front; a two-parted body composed of a head and a segmented abdomen; two short, powerful pincers located between the feelers. The long abdomen was held curved upward, slightly resembling the tail of a scorpion.

What was it? Not an insect, because it had four pairs of legs instead of three, and its body was in two segments rather than three. The mystery "thing" seemed to be closely related to the spiders, but its abdomen was segmented, whereas a spider's never is. A trip to the library was obviously next on the schedule for the curious naturalists. References on the class Arachnida (to which spiders and scorpions belong) revealed the strange animal to be a member of the order Solifugae, or as some authors spell it, Solpugida.

Common names of Solifugae are as odd as the animal itself. In Spain, it is called "aranha del sol” meaning sun-spider, because it inhabits hot, dry places. But this is a contradiction, for its scientific name comes from the Latin meaning to run away from the sun; “sol fuga." "False spider" is an obvious cognomen. "Wind scorpion" because it resembles a scorpion and runs like the wind. Soldiers in Africa during World War II called them "jerrymanders" and staged duels between favorite specimens. In Mexico and the southwestern United States, the Mexicans watched Solifugae retreat to their holes in the ground and called the little beasts "niño de la tierra." So “child-of-the-earth" they are to most southwesterners today.

The ten families of Solifugae are circum-equatorial in distribution: the Sahara in Africa, deserts of the middle east, southern Spain and Greece, India and the American southwest. They are lovers of warmth, and hide away during the winter season. They seem to prefer regions where the soil is baked and bare. In spite for their desire for warmth, they are nocturnal, and retreat to their holes during the day.

Great labor and persistence are required when a "child-of-the-earth" digs its burrow. Circles of soil are cut with the jaws, and the soil is raked back with the second pair of legs. The legs are pushed into the loose dirt, their ends being turned in so they seem to be gathering dirt by the armloads. The soil comes spouting from beneath the abdomen, like a dog throwing dirt between its legs. From their burrows, Solifugae rush out to catch insects of all kinds, even hard-shelled beetles and grasshopper's. They kill and eat large spiders and scorpions. They eat only living prey, and will chase anything that moves.