Page 1 of 2 | © 2005-2010 text by Robert G. "Spider Bob" Breene III, Ph.D., photos by Wade Harrell
Ever since I landed in southeastern New Mexico like a meteor, people told me about an arachnid they called children of the earth. I'd heard that name used in central California for a huge Jerusalem cricket that burrows in the ground, eating roots. The large, shiny round head of the cricket looked sort of like a baby's head, hence the name.
That wasn't the fearsome beast people talked about around these parts. Some folks thought children of the earth were big, ugly horribly venomous devils waiting to shred some unwary human into their component atoms. They made them sound like a bad horror movie. I never could get a good description of what animal they were talking about. Others told me they devoured undesirable insects like cockroaches and arachnids like scorpions, (all in the eye of the beholder, forgive the arthropod phobic public) and were good to have around. The mystery continued. I began to wonder what they were putting in Carlsbad's water. Finally, somebody brought me one.
Ah hah! Of the 11 arachnid orders, what folks were calling children of the earth are members of order Solifugae (Sol = sun; fugae = flee; sol-if-ooh-gay), the windscorpions. They aren't scorpions, but a very hyper group of arachnids widespread in the US, most often seen in the Southwest. Their name came from "running like the wind."
Some windscorpion species reach nearly three inches in length, making them one of the largest of arachnids. US species hide during the day, coming out at night to scamper about in a frenzied search for food. Windscorpions don't have tails, let alone a stinger. Their butt ends are bluntly rounded. The first pair of appendages are the chelicerae, closest to the mouth. The chelicerae are bulky, with hard black pincers on the end of each "jaw." This is the business end of the windscorpion. If the individual is large enough, they can pinch with the chelicerae, even cut open a finger, drawing blood. They have no venom, making them dangerous only to insects and other small animals that can't escape their attack. The next pair of appendages are stubby, leg-like pedipalps with flattened sticky tips they use to capture and handle prey. On down the line is a threadlike first pair of legs they use as feelers. After that, they sport three pairs of legs that make them the little speed demons they are. A pair of simple eyes are present on top of their cephalothorax right behind the chelicerae.
Windscorpions eat just about anything they can run down or dig up that doesn't eat them first. They run a zigzag searching pattern, constantly probing, prodding, exploring holes in the ground, deftly touching everything in reach of their pedipalps and first pair of legs for a quick bite to eat. I've seen them zoom toward lighted areas at night, snatching up the insects attracted to the light that have dropped to the ground. They are frequent feeders, needing to replace the lost water and energy expended from their frantic activities. Some species specialize on termites, while others have been spotted feasting on small lizards. Mice on the menu of some wouldn't surprise me a bit.