Camel, er, wind spiders cause stir

2008-07-15T00:00:00Z Camel, er, wind spiders cause stirCHRIS MERRILL Star-Tribune environment reporter Casper Star-Tribune Online

LANDER - You say camel spider, I say wind scorpion - let's call the whole thing off.

It turns out camel spiders are native to the American West - we just don't call them camel spiders. And they don't get 6 inches long here, like they do in North Africa and the Middle East.

A spider found by an Ogden, Utah, woman last week created a stir when initial stories suggested it was a camel spider: a scary-looking, powerfully jawed critter that news reports said was not native to this hemisphere.

This weekend, after watching TV news coverage of the Ogden discovery, a Kemmerer couple also captured one of these hairy, beady-eyed creepy crawlers.

The thing is, camel spiders - or wind scorpions, as they're known here - are common throughout the West, usually emerging at night in arid landscapes, hunting other bugs and small creatures with great speed and ferocity.

Camel spiders have gotten some press in recent years - and a lot of Internet buzz - as American soldiers in Iraq posted and sent back photos of these disconcertingly large and menacing-looking creatures.

American arachnophobes can be thankful, however, because these solifugae, as they're known scientifically, usually stop growing here in North America when their leg spans reach 1 to 2 inches, said James Barnhill, an extension agent and entomologist with Utah State University.

"They're native to our area; they're not introduced," Barnhill said. "They look like a spider with an extra set of legs out front. They're considered beneficial, and I've never heard of anybody getting bit by them."

Wind scorpions - also known as sun scorpions and sun spiders - are not technically spiders at all, Barnhill said. They belong to a different arachnid order altogether, like scorpions do.

According to the National Geographic magazine, pound for pound these critters wield the most powerful jaws in the desert. Scientists like to point out that, relative to size, wind scorpions and camel spiders have a deadlier bite than a great white shark.

They will bite humans only in self defense, if handled, and although it can be very painful, the bites are not poisonous, according to W.S. Cranshaw, an entomologist with Colorado Sate University.

"Because of their fearsome and unusual appearance, sun spiders often cause alarm when they are discovered," Cranshaw wrote, but added they are essentially harmless.

Lori Good and her fiancee, Jim Vilos, of Kemmerer, were certainly startled by the wind scorpion's appearance, they said, when Vilos captured one outside their home Saturday.

"It's got pinchers on it, on the front, that are like an ants' jaws. I don't know how to explain it," Good said. "In a roundabout way, they kind of remind you of sand crickets, almost. You just don't imagine you're going to have that kind of stuff in Wyoming."

Good and Vilos had watched a TV news story about the "camel spider" in Utah on Friday evening, and she and Vilos looked up pictures of the critter on the Web to see what they look like, Good said.

"And then Jim came in Saturday and he said, 'You'll never guess what I caught,"' she said.

Vilos saw the quick-moving spider in his yard when he went to adjust a lawn sprinkler. At first he captured the spider under a funnel from the garage, and finally got it into an empty mayonnaise jar.

"I told her I caught a camel spider, the same thing we'd just seen on TV, and she goes, 'Oh, you're full of crap,"' Vilos said.

He plans to preserve the wind scorpion in alcohol, as he did a regular scorpion he caught a couple of years ago, Vilos said, to keep as a conversation piece.

In the American West, wind scorpions tend to invade people's homes in July and August, according to Cranshaw, attracted to prey that are themselves attracted to nighttime lighting.

Environment reporter Chris Merrill can be reached at chris.merrill@trib.com or at (307) 267-6722.

BREAKOUT

Most powerful jaws in the West

* Camel spiders, or wind scorpions as they're known here, have pound for pound the most powerful bite of any creature in the desert.

* Their "jaws," or chelicerae, which is the insect equivalent, are more powerful, relative to size, than the jaws of a great white shark.

* They are hairy, with beady eyes and "Popeye forearms," and they are lightning-quick.

* Wind scorpions' jaws are like a combination pincer and knife - they chew their victims into pulp with a sawing motion, and then exude an enzyme that liquefies the flesh, which they suck into their stomachs.

* They not harmful to humans, however.

Source: National Geographic Magazine, July 2004

NEWS TRACKER

Last we knew: A so-called camel spider was discovered in Ogden, Utah, last week, and initial reports suggested the creature was not native to this hemisphere.

The latest: A Kemmerer couple also discovered a "camel spider" this weekend, but scientists said the creatures are, indeed, native to the American West.

What's next: Wind scorpions, as they're known here, tend to invade people's homes in July and August, but they are harmless.

Copyright 2015 Casper Star-Tribune Online. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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