If I were to write a script for a horror movie, I would not have to invent the ‘alien’ that threatens the world. I would simply blow up a solifuge to 20 times its size. A two-metre solifuge would scare the living daylights out of me – and I dare say most other people. Nature has already invented the stuff of nightmares, but because they are mostly small and probably harmless, we don’t live in constant fear for our lives.
So what is a solifuge? Solifuges are arachnids – eight-legged creatures – as are spiders. They have many different names. The Afrikaans name ‘baardskeerder’ refers to the urban legend that they shave beards and other hair while the subject is asleep. Not so – their mouthparts are not made to cut hair. The myth probably arose from the fact that female solifuges do collect shed animal hair to line their nests.
Most solifuge species are nocturnal, but those that hunt during the day are generally bright reddish-brown, covered with setae (hair-like structures) of various lengths, some up to 50mm, resembling shiny red hair. These setae are thought to be tactile sensors.
Another Afrikaans nickname for these colourful creatures is ‘rooiman’ (red man), which led to the English corruption ‘Roman’ or ‘Red Roman’. Yet another common name is ‘Jerrymunglum’, the origin of which I have been unable to find out.
The diurnal solifuge species that hunt during the day are very averse to sunlight. The name Solifuge is derived from the Latin ‘fugere’ (to flee; fly; run away) and ‘sol’ (sun). This habit of escaping the sun is responsible for freaking out many people who encounter them, especially in hot desert areas.
The shadow we cast is oh so attractive to a solifuge, which will run towards that shadow. Run away and he will run after you – or rather after your shadow. And no matter how fast you run, you cannot outrun him. It’s not for nothing that they are nicknamed the ‘Kalahari Ferrari’. A person who is not familiar with this habit and the fact that they are harmless could miss a heartbeat or two. It must be one of the few wild creatures that appears to ‘attack’.
Solifuges may look like they have ten legs, but the first pair of appendages is the pedipalps. These are very strong and are used for various functions such as drinking, mating, climbing and catching. A most unusual feature enables the solifuge to catch prey. The unique suctorial organs on the tips of the pedipalps ‘suck’ onto the target and bring it back to the chelicerae (mouthparts). In this respect, a pedipalp functions a bit like a chameleon’s tongue.
The chelicera is the most awesome of the solifuge features. The mouthpart is big – fearsomely big compared to the body – and prominent. There are two parts to the chelicera that work a bit like our jaws. The lower ‘jaw’ moves up and down, and the upper one is fixed, like our own. Both parts are armed with cheliceral teeth for crushing prey. Prey consists of insects, spiders, scorpions, reptiles and small birds.
Some solifuges sit in the shade and ambush their prey. Others run their prey down. Once they catch the prey, they eat it while it is still alive with vigorous ripping and cutting actions of the powerful jaws. Solifuges are not venomous, despite their fearsome-looking jaws.
Solifuges are themselves eaten by raptors, owls and small mammals including the bat-eared fox, small-spotted genet, Cape fox, African civet and black-backed jackal..
Solifuge males have an enviable seduction technique. First, the male seeks out a female. Using the suctorial organ on a pedipalp, he rips the female from her hideout. He then uses his pedipalps to caress her into a passive state and massages her abdomen with his chelicerae while he deposits a spermatophore (sperm package) in her genital opening.
Following mating, up to 200 eggs are produced, which hatch within about four weeks. The first stage of development is a larva. The larva moults into a solifuge nymph, which then passes through 9–10 instars before maturity. The adults live for only about a year.
There’s certainly a lot of living packed into such a short life in the ‘bos’ at Baardskeerdersbos.
About the Author
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