Not A Scorpion And No Real Spider

25 Feb 2020

Dirk Heinrich 

At the first glance they look scary. Because they represent two animal species that many people are unnecessarily afraid of and loathe: spiders and scorpions. Two very long antennae-like feelers, two pincers equipped with several spines and the long body and legs of a spider. These critters are known as whip spiders and also as tailless whip scorpions.  Worldwide there are more than 200 species, and they are completely harmless. 

The long antennae-like feelers are in fact the front legs. Their semblance to whips is the reason for the name whip spider. Whip spiders are an order of arachnids, but they are not real spiders even though they have eight legs. But they have no venomous pincers and glands and they cannot spin a web. With their large spine-studded pincers they seize and overpower their prey, mostly insects or arachnids, and with the help of their masticatory organs eat it alive. 

Most whip spider species prefer humid environments and therefore live in tropical and subtropical regions. According to Professor Lorenzo Prendini, who is in charge of the arachnid collection at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, five species of whip spiders occur in Namibia. They are found in places which offer sufficient moisture: caves, crevices and near springs. As yet there are no English common names for them. 

Xerophrynus machadoi occurs in former Damaraland, now part of the Kunene Region. Phrynichodamon scullyi has been found in the Naukluft Mountains and further south all the way down to the Orange River. Damon gracilis has been discovered in several places in Kaokoland in north-western Namibia and Damon sylviae lives in the northern and central parts of the country. One of the first specimens of Damon variegatus was found in the Zambezi Region, on the Namibian side of the Ngoma Bridge across the Chobe River, by finance minister Calle Schlettwein, then the entomologist of the former Directorate for Water Management (now NamWater). Schlettwein says that he handed the whip spider to the National Museum. 

An enquiry confirmed that the whip spider he caught in August 1974 is indeed still kept in the National Museum, along with others of this species.  

Professor Prendini says that very little is known about the whip spiders in Namibia. No details exist on how long they live, when and how often they mate and what their menu consists of. Many Namibians have never even seen these seemingly primeval arachnids. The eagerly awaited rain after the long drought has now lured some of them out of their hiding places. Our specimen was discovered in early January 2020 at Bambatsi Guest Farm. The length of its body is 20 mm, one of the antenna-like feelers (front legs) is 80 mm long and the other legs measure approximately 32 mm. The tip of the second antenna has broken off after the first segment. According to Professor Prendini it is probably a specimen of Damon sylviae, which apparently also occurs south, east and northwest of Windhoek. Another whip spider was found a few days later in a washbasin on a farm near Bambatsi and released into the bush.  

The National Museum in Windhoek is happy to receive specimens for its collection, says Benson Muramba of the museum’s Department of Arachnology. They should be placed in ethanol and should be accompanied by a note stating the location, GPS coordinates, the name of the finder, the date, a description of the habitat and condition of the whip spider. Ethanol, if not available, can be replaced by gin.  

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