With iconic predators like lions, leopards, and cheetahs roaming the African savannah, it’s easy to overlook the inherent skill of some of the region’s smallest hunters: camel spiders.
Also called wind scorpions, camel spiders are neither spiders nor scorpions (nor camels!), although they are often misidentified as such. Camel spiders belong to a group of arachnids known as solpugids. Though they can’t weave webs or produce venom, they’re incredibly fast and armed with a set of oversized, jagged jaws that can bisect a small lizard with ease.
While guiding a tour through Londolozi Game Reserve, adjacent to South Africa’s Kruger National Park, Safari tour guide Guy Brunskill spotted a camel spider in the midst of an epic takedown and immediately pulled out his camera.
Although it may not look like it, Brunskill’s video hasn’t been sped up—the camel spider is just that fast. Using four sets of fast-moving feet, these agile arachnids can reach speeds up to 10 miles per hour.
But speed isn’t the camel spider’s only asset. They also possess a set of saw-like jaws that can extend up to one-third of the spider’s body length. These jaws are lined with several sharp spikes that allow the spider to tear through the tough exteriors of small lizards as well as termites and other arthropods.
Built for Speed
The camel spiders use their exceptional speed to ambush their prey, and once they’ve got a good grip, they use their powerful jaws to tear it apart.
In a blog post describing the scene, Brunskill expressed his admiration for the predator. “We were all so intrigued with this small, unique arachnid and how it has adapted … to overpower its victims with speed.”
Being fast-footed allows the camel spider to make quick work of the millipede, but environmentalist and National Geographic Explorer Alberto Borges thinks that may not be why the animal chose to move quickly.
The camel spider must also compete with scorpions, giant centipedes, wolf spiders (in deserts) and tarantulas (in moist forests) as top predators, Alberto Borges said in an email. “Therefore, it has to consume its food really quickly to avoid losing its meal to its competitors.”
Scientists have identified over 1,000 species of camel spiders, the largest of which can reach six inches in length. These creepy crawlers inhabit deserts, steppes and savannas in Africa, the Middle East, central Asia, the southwestern United States, Mexico, and South America. (In 2004, a photo of camel spider in Iraq was an internet sensation.)
There’s much scientists still don’t know about these animals. Because camel spiders inhabit inhospitable regions and spend much of lives underground, studying them is difficult.
On the Defense
Compared with the camel spider, the millipede in the video is at a distinct disadvantage. Its only means of deterring predators are a thick exoskeleton and glands that secrete a foul-smelling liquid. Its primary defense involves curling up into a ball, as seen in the video.
“Millipedes have learned that in order to stay alive, they have to coil themselves to keep the head away from the predator’s jaws,” Borges says. (Related: Watch Swarms of Millipedes Join Ranks to Survive.)
But that’s not enough to stop the camel spider, which is fast enough to wrap its jaws around millipede by the time the latter starts curling up, Borges says.
Camel spiders are similar to lions in that they prefer to kill their prey before consuming it, which is why they often decapitate their victims. Once they’ve killed the prey, they consume it by filling the dead creature’s body cavity with digestive fluids that turn its innards into a soup-like mush that the spider can slurp.
Videos like this may unsettle some, but they serve an important scientific function. Having candid videos of camel spiders will help scientists test their theories about the behavior of these elusive arachnids.
The experience “goes to show that there is so much to see and be enthralled by [if] you just keep your eyes open,” Brunskill says.