Dear Straight Dope:
For the last few years, I've read things about the famed camel spider or wind scorpion (Eremobates gladiolus) in the Middle East. From pictures I've seen, it's a little bigger than your hand and very aggressive. Here's what I've heard that I can't verify conclusively: It can run upwards of 25 mph (by soldiers that have tracked the speed with humvees since it runs in their shadows). It's called a camel spider because it climbs onto the bellies of camels and eats the stomach--because the spider secretes anesthetics to numb the flesh, the camels don't notice until their intestines fall out. It makes a screaming/squealing noise when it runs, similar to a child screaming. So, pretty much the most horrifying thing you can imagine. How much of this is true? How horrible is it really?
Doesn’t this sound like the perfect topic for today, April Fool’s Day? We thought you’d appreciate it.
Urban legends about the camel spider (properly termed a solpugid or solifugid) are as old as the proverbial hills, but they made a huge resurgence when vectored by American troops in Kuwait during Desert Storm. They’re not quite as big as your hand (unless you’re a five-year-old), and very shy and secretive. They do like to hide in the shadows, and they do run very, very quickly for a critter (they can reach about 10 MPH, the fastest known non-flying arthropod). They make no noise whatsoever, they have no venom whatsoever, and they do not eat flesh–they eat small desert arthropods like crickets and pillbugs. The rumors of their attacking camels, or crawling onto sleeping GIs’ faces, apparently stem from one of two things, both of which may be true to some extent: (1) they may use hair to line their burrow when they are about to lay a batch of eggs, said hair being clipped from dead camels or other dead mammals (and a sleeping GI is not much different), and/or (2) dead camels are covered with flies, and crawling over a camel corpse may make for a convenient way to get a good meal of flies.
We have camel spiders in the sandy parts of the southwest U.S. and Mexico (in Mexico they are called matevenados), considerably smaller than the Middle Eastern types, but of the same shy, unassuming habits. Completely harmless and beneficial critters, like the desert equivalent of a praying mantis.
Send questions to Cecil via firstname.lastname@example.org.
STAFF REPORTS ARE WRITTEN BY THE STRAIGHT DOPE SCIENCE ADVISORY BOARD, CECIL'S ONLINE AUXILIARY. THOUGH THE SDSAB DOES ITS BEST, THESE COLUMNS ARE EDITED BY ED ZOTTI, NOT CECIL, SO ACCURACYWISE YOU'D BETTER KEEP YOUR FINGERS CROSSED.