Death Cycle 5: The Nocturnal Scavengers

Photography by Parker Grice

At four in the morning I went out with a flashlight to look at the dead squirrel. It was 58 degrees, a good 20 degrees cooler than it had been in the bright day. A rim of lighter gray ringed the sky, but it was still essentially dark. I heard some sort of night birds singing before I went out, but everything went still when I stepped onto the porch. I thought of circling round from the front again, in case big sensitive-eared or –eyed scavengers like cats or raccoons were at work, but I didn't really feel much like going out at that hour and took the lazy man's approach, slipping a bit on the dewy grass.

As I approached the carcass, I heard no noise and saw no movement. The flashlight revealed far more damage than at last look. The head seemed to have been turned inside out and the upper body was massively depleted. It had all dried into a red topography. At first I saw nothing on the carcass, but then a dreamy, unfolding movement caught my eye. It was a harvestman. I looked closer to see what it was doing. It squatted, or rather lowered itself on its many legs, and seemed to be drinking or nibbling from the flesh. And then I realized harvestmen squatted all over the carcass, their bodies lowered to let their mouthparts latch onto the flesh.

The harvestman, also called a daddylonglegs, is often mistaken for a spider, but it's actually a different kind of arachnid. Like a spider, it has eight legs, but the main part of its body is an oval with no obvious divisions. (A spider has two body sections.) To add to the confusion, the name daddylonglegs is casually applied to some spiders and even crane flies.

I see harvestmen often in my yard, spindly-legged fellows hard to distinguish from the rotted leaf-stems they walk among. I have seen them clustered like a clump of mud under a dripping spigot. Sometimes a tangle of string hanging from the fence turns out to be a cluster of harvestmen; they run scattering at a touch. If I accidentally step on one, it will run away, leaving a leg or two behind. The disembodied legs spasm as if fighting a rear-guard action.

The harvestmen have no silk and no venom. They differ from most arachnids in being able to swallow not just liquids, but also solid chunks—for example, bits of flesh. They are said to repel attackers with a bad-smelling fluid, but I've never noticed the smell. In fact, I've never noticed much about them. For years I had the impression that they subsisted only on plant juices. Then I read that they scavenged a bit as well and even took small arthropods as prey. That made them seem worth investigating, but further years passed while other organisms held my attention. Henceforth, I'll be paying closer attention to harvestmen. Now I know what they get up to in the night.


  1. Dark horses of the Arachnid Kingdom!

  2. Well put! This sort of revelation happens to me over and over. I suspect every single organism is worth my close attention, if only I had the time.


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