|Male. Photographed in September, 2011, in Chongwe District, Lusaka, Zambia, using Olympus E-420 DSLR, Zuiko 40-150mm lens and 3 KOOD magnifiers.|
These more-or-less friendly little beasties have a number of names, and probably just as many myths surrounding them - in Afrikaans, they are Haarskeerder or Baardskeerder, reflecting the (likely incorrect) belief that they cut off the hair and beards of unsuspecting people, and use the hair to line their nests; the names Rooiroman is simply a translation of the english 'Red-Romans', which, along with the rather charming Jerrymunglum, is of unknown origin to me.
The Afrikaans tradition is actually quite a sweet belief in comparison to some: in North Africa and the Middle East, Solifuges have picked up the Anglophone name of 'Camel Spider', with which comes a host of beliefs; that they can outrun camels, that they develop parasitically within camels and chew their way out, or that they simply chew their way in for no apparent reason; that they inject sleeping soldiers with anaesthetics and then strip away the flesh - to the bone - while they sleep... in parts of Masa(a)i East Africa, they are held to be venomous, and the conventional wisdom is that goats' blood should be applied to the wound in treatment of this venom.
In Chewa, I cannot find a name for them; we're settling, then, for another direct translation - the 'Sun spider' becomes 'Dzuwa Kanguade' .
This name comes with its own associations and stories - the name for the order, 'Solifugae' literally means 'those that flee from the sun', which isn't - unusually - entirely inaccurate, but more on that later.
You see, the Solifuges are plagued by dichotomies. They have, for an arthropod, a most extraordinarily advanced eye - as if it wasn't unusual enough to have only the two, theirs represents, in evolutionary terms, the last step in the chain between the ever-popular compound eye and the visually rewarding 'simple' eye that we vertebrates are so lucky to possess; although the Solifuge eye is small, it is - at least in theory - capable of passing on a really quite accurate image of the world around them to their brain.
A good many species, though, hunt only at night and furthermore, almost entirely by touch.
The order is split between nocturnal and diurnal species, but - unlike, for example, the birds, where the nocturnal species are almost all found in just two evolutionary lines (Caprimulgiformes and Strigiformes), nocturnal species make up a significant chunk of a great many of the larger genera, and most - if not all - of the families show representatives of both groups.
Of the day active species, many are at their most active in the hottest part of the day; which - in the tropics - is a rather questionable life choice for a small, relatively soft-bodied invertebrate; presumably to offset this, these thermally naive species are often noted for their tendency to chase shadows - which, although it presumably limits their chances of being boiled alive at an essentially predator-free time of day, does mean that they are frequently perceived as aggressors by the already quite invertebrate-unfriendly human race, and met with a boot or a faceful of insecticide.
Before we get onto talking about me, there is one more dichotomy to mention: these are small, relatively slow moving (very fast within their size-group, but not compared to, say, us) invertebrates, whose inability to cross geographic barriers is made apparent by the restriction of entire families to Southern Africa, and yet - along with hundreds of species recorded only from single sites - there are a handful of species that are - apparently validly - recorded from the entirety of Sub-Saharan Africa.
And now onto the other part.
Several months ago, I posted this picture on the - wonderful - Spider Club of Southern Africa face-book page, hoping that someone could help me get started on its identification: my experience with this group was not remotely taxonomic - it consisted largely of panicking when one fell off the ceiling into my food.
Very quickly, someone told me that it looked like a member of a particular family (Daesiidae), but they couldn't be sure.
Shortly thereafter, an authority whose opinion I held, and continue to hold, in great esteem, posted their 2 cents.
They stated that these could not be identified - even to family - from a photograph, and that a captive male was required for any form of I.D.
This might very well have been the end of it, except that, off the back of the first post, I had already been digging up what I could (on the gobsmackingly fantastic and completely FREE biodiversity heritage library) on the Daesiidae within southern Africa.
I'd dug up quite a lot.
I'd identified that mine was male, and I'd identified that its peculiar, membranous flagellum was clearly unlike the vast majority of illustrations I could find of genera known to occur in southern africa. Several families could be quite easily ruled out and, within the only family that couldn't, most genera were similarly quite clearly inappropriate for my little (tiny) find.
So I said as much on the post, and asked whether, given that I understood that a great many Solifugae were impossible to identify from photographs, I was correct in all my readings of the word 'Distinctive', 'Unique' and 'Diagnostic' in the original literature.
The response wasn't snarky. It wasn't even unkind. But it was dismissive.
In that response, it was abundantly clear that this acknowledged expert - whom only hours previously I have been ecstatic to have received any contact from at all - had not even read what I had written. This should not have been a problem - if there are two things that I am exceptionally good at, it's being told that I'm wrong, and falling off things. The skin of my forearms and knees is really quite thick, and more importantly, my brain is by now quite happy to let go of something it formerly held to be true.
So all should, you would think, be as it was. I should have moved on and left the Solifuges alone, safe in the knowledge that in a few years time, they would be genetically barcoded, and we could identify them by snipping bits off living, breathing organisms and sending it to some cold, mechanical lab in Boston. Or something.
But my dismisser also repeated something he had said in his first statement. Something which I now had empirical proof was abundantly not true: that a male was required for any concrete identification.
This is not an unusual view - males of many animals are not usually more abundant, but they are usually more conspicuous and, often, more unusual in their form, and this is reflected in descriptions of the types.
However, this species, and the genus that Kraepelin created for it, were originally described from females.
If a species and a genus that are still held to be valid over a century later, even when a dozen or so species variously described from males and females have be added to the genus since, based on a sample composed entirely of females, it's safe to say that some identification can be made within this group based on the females.
My dismisser, in my admittedly rather warped mind, had used his position as a pre-eminent arachnologist to fuel a lie. I was, in a word, enraged.
Which is why now, one hundred species and a third of the way through transcribing the entirety of the type descriptions of known Southern African Solifuges, I can tell you that the person most responsible for this somewhat misogynistic view of arachnid identification was a gentleman by the name of R. F. Lawrence, who had the common indecency to die, and leave southern Africa without its most prolific author on these wonderful little monsters. The forty years that have passed since that saw increasingly few publications, and without publications and citations, much of the original literature more-or-less disappeared, making it essentially impossible to identify species. The fact that Roewer had, in 1933, written a lengthy treatise on Solifugae from all over the world was somewhat irrelevant if nobody knew it existed. South Africa's first noteworthy Boer (actually half-Boer) scientist, William Purcell, might as well have never been born, for all the inattention to almost everything he had ever written .
This is a travesty, not only because I have an automatic soft-spot for people who share my genetic mix-ups, but also because knowledge was degrading. If it got much further, the original descriptions would be better off scrapped, and, at least for my favourite subcontinent, the entire order would have be redescribed as though it was new; considering how limited many Solifuges are in their distribution, quite a few of them could very well have gone extinct in the last century, and if their original descriptions disappeared - what then? Would we not count that as a loss because, for taxonomic purposes, they never existed?
I told you that this was going to be a mid-length essay; I lied. I know it's a long one. I know it borders on the fantastical, but these concerns aren't entirely unreal. This order has an extraordinary level of endemism; endemic species are the first to be pushed over the edge and into oblivion, and if no-one even knows that they exist, how would we know if they had ceased to?
Well, now that doesn't have to happen. The Biodiversity Heritage Library is a fantastic project to put all of this information online, and - even if I give up and fail halfway through my personal attack on these type descriptions - information is being clawed back from the edge of nothing.
The internet, in its own special way, is saving the world.
No, I'm not certifiable. Daylight saving has ended, which is always unsettling.
If anyone is interested in this group more generally, I really recommend The Solpugid Website, which, although it lacks much in the way of information on African species, does, crucially, have a lengthy list of all known citations for this order, which is even more valuable when you realise that many of these come with downloadable PDFs of the same citations.
For those that don't? BHL.