A relative sent me this photo. It's a well-traveled image on the Web. Generally it accompanies a message claiming that US soldiers in Iraq have been victimized by these “camel spiders.” Supposedly the arachnids bite the soldiers in their sleep, causing big patches of tissue to rot and fall off. The email continues with its far-fetched details. Here’s a summary of these myths from Wikipedia:
It is widely rumored among American and coalition military forces stationed there that [camel spiders] will feed on living human flesh. The story goes that the creature will inject some anaesthetizing venom into the exposed skin of its sleeping victim, then feed voraciously, leaving the victim to awaken with a gaping wound. . . . Other stories include tales of them leaping into the air, disemboweling camels, eerie hissing and screaming, and running alongside moving humvees; all of these tales are false.
It’s an awesome picture, but it gets a little less so if you look closely. After a minute you notice that the shot makes the creatures look a lot bigger than they really are. If you compare them to, for instance, the soldier’s cuff, you’ll have a better basis for judging size. Keep looking and you’ll notice that what appears to be one huge critter is actually two, one of which is biting the other in the abdomen.
The animal really is one of the most impressive predators I’ve ever seen, but it’s harmless to people. Its common names include sunspider and windscorpion. Technically, it’s neither a spider nor a scorpion, but an arachnid related to both. I have encountered it many times in the arid Southwestern US, where the biggest specimens I saw were about the size of a walnut. The biggest in the world can reach five or perhaps even six inches. They are remarkably fast, the fastest land-running arthropods ever clocked, and they capture their prey with their sticky palps—the club-like feelers they hold forward as they run.
If you haven’t passed out yet, take a close look at the jaws on these babies. Proportionally, they may be the largest found on any animal. Each jaw is built like a pair of pliers with sharp teeth in it. But, contrary to the myth, they don’t pack venom. They kill their insect prey by mechanical injury. The jaw-hinges don’t let them open very wide, so it would be very hard for a camel spider to bite a person—or a camel, for that matter. Whether it actually happens to people at all is a matter of dispute. I’ve never been bitten by one, despite various unwise episodes of interference with camel spider affairs. In experimenting with dead specimens, I’ve found it difficult to open the pincers wide at all. They didn’t seem to be designed for defensive bites, but maybe that was simply an effect of rigor mortis (yes, bugs get it too).
I debunked this myth in the book version of Deadly Kingdom. The Red Hourglass has a longer account of the camel spider (under the name windscorpion) in its chapter on the black widow spider. (What does the one have to do with the other? It’s a long story, but it starts with them eating each other.)
Camelspiders battle to the death: