Archive for the ‘solifugids’ category

Searching for scorps and other creepies!

19 September 2009

One evening last month, two bright young lads, supposedly studying zoology in College but actually doing research in their own way, invited me for a scorpion walk. They agreed to provide the instruction while I agreed to provide the college campus  in Dapodi, Pune.

Meet Chintan (Solifugi-phile) and Aamod (scorpio-phile). Or rather both are Arachnophiles.

Aamod Zambre

Aamod Zambre

Chintan Sheth

Chintan Sheth

[To read about Scorpions in ‘The Butterfly Diaries’ read “My Secret Garden” and for more about Solifugids, see my post “Solifugids ko Salaam“].

So late that evening, my daughter Aditi and I accompanied them and went in search of scorpions. They had Petzl forehead lamps – small circular discs on a forehead band which blazed white with diode light. These were very interesting to me as I had never seen them before.

For an hour we turned over stones, boulders, twigs and rubble in the large, mostly barren plain behind the student officers quarters with intermittent plants and trees interspersed. Yours truly and mine own had plain yellow torches. We could not find any scorpions.

This is a phenomenon not many realise, the desertification of urban surrounds. The plants were there but the invertebrate life was a miniscule fraction of the average wild area! Worrying.

Anyway, few ants, beetles, millipedes but no scorpions. ūüė¶

Aditi remembered that the patch behind the basketball court in CME is wooded and slightly wild being neglected. So there we went. This time it was open woodland with knee-high grass and shrubs. But there were no scorpions on the ground. CME is a fairly moist area and scorpions generally prefer dry areas. But there was nothing on the woodland floor.

A few hundred metres into the woods we came across a large dry tree-fall with what appeared to be termite mounds around it.

“Aha”, cried the youngsters. “Ideal place to search for Hottentota pachyurus“.

They now brought out a ‘magic lamp’. When switched on it gave an eerie bluish light. This was a Ultraviolet light of a particular wavelength.
If pointed at a scorpion, it will shine a bright yellow-green.

A scorpion under a 'blacklight' glows eerily.

A scorpion under a 'blacklight' glows eerily.

This is because the cuticle of scorpions contains fluorescent chemicals. Strangely, this has not yet developed in the case of juveniles. The chemical, now thought to be a beta-Carboline, helps locate scorpions and a handheld UV light is now the main item of equipment while hunting for scorpions.

'Villiam' captures the hero!

'Villiam' captures the heroine!

It took but a minute of concentrated examination til we heard sounds of success, Aamod scrabbling after a scorpion. It was Mesobuthus pachyurus, or more correctly,   Hottentota pachyurus as Mesobuthus is a synonym.

(Please refer revision of Hottentota in Euscorpius by¬† Frantisek KovaŇô√≠k in 2007. Find it here).

A not uncommon scorpion in Pune region, we had found a female.

Patiently he explained,

“It’s a Hottentota because¬† its a very common genus in South Asia distinguished by a set of characters such as the lyriform configuration of the carapace and keels on the metasoma.”

“It’s pachyurus because of the uniform black body colour expect on fingers of chela which are red in color.”

“It’s female because¬† of the relative thickness of the manus of the chela.”

Greek or Latin? Sounded like that to me. Not to mention that I felt like the ‘chhela’ of this marathi ‘mannoos’!

We went on to find four more female H. Pachy’s on that tree stump wich were collected peered at and released.

Juvenile Hottentota pachyurus

Juvenile Hottentota pachyurus

A wide circle revealed no more scorpions. Though it was overcast, no rain came and the dark red light reflected off the clouds by Pune city guided us. It as a bit like Mordor!

You would expect a wooded area, akin to a protected area, more than 400 metres in each direction from civilisation with adequate shrubs and grass to have a good insect life! But the same thing happened here too Рour wild areas are becoming virtual deserts with an odd oasis in between. Just some vegetation and protection over a few hundred acres gives a nice place but not quite  a biodiversity hotspot. Loss of biodiversity occurs not at far away places but far closer to home.

Though our visit was also rewarded by a lizard – The Termite-hill gecko – and the Cricket frog, the rest of the night we circled fruitlessly around and came back to where our vehicles are parked.

Its amazing that almost 104 years after Pocock published his Arachnida volumes as part of the Fauna of British India series¬† (download them from here) ,¬† we still don’t have any kind of guide to the Scorpions of India. Even more amazing, these young lads took up the study of these creatures despite the complete lack of literature.

Just shows in India, there is always hope!

As long as we have young men like Amod and Chintan willing to push the envelope, all is well with Indian biodiversity.

Solifugids ko salaam!

13 January 2009

(Hindi  :  Hail the Solifugids!)

In my family, it is usually my son, Aashay, or me who exclaims at the beauty of a bird or goggles at the Chinkara loitering amongst the dunes. My daughter Aditi, is the sophisticate, who has a been-there, done-that attitude towards this whole ‘animal thing’. Animals do not interest this ten year old; she is into horror films, the more gory and Gothic the better. So it was with some surprise that during a trip in 2006 to the Jaisalmer desert, where I was posted, that Aditi had an interesting interlude with, of all things, Solifugids.

Solifugids are mysterious arthropods. Unknown to most people, they are misunderstood even amongst those who are familiar with them. I suspect that the only people who might be supposed to know about them, scientists, don’t actually, because till date none of them has bothered to tell me anything about these strange creatures!

What are solifuges, you ask? Don’t worry, I take no offense at your query. Solifuges are large members of the tribe ‘arthropods‘ (meaning jointed creatures). The arthropods consist of the millions of six-legged insects, and the many more-than-six-legged other creatures such as crabs, spiders and the various -pedes. A solifuge is not an insect but one of the others, a relative of the spiders, and other eight-legged creatures, which are referred to as Arachnids. The clan is scientifically so named because of its dislike for the sun. They take refuge from the sun, so Sol (meaning Sun) and refuge (meaning refuge) = Solifuge. Get it?

As far as the common names are concerned, the common people have not quite decided what they resemble more – spiders or scorpions so that they are commonly referred to, both as wind-scorpions and camel-spiders! And sometimes, most insultingly to all solifugids, they are also called sun-spiders or sun-scorpions despite their obvious and lifelong abhorrence of the sun.

If a Solifugid is disturbed by day, he will first of all dart into the coolest shade he can find which may well be your shadow. If you move away and so does your shadow, you should not be surprised to find the solifugid following in order to keep out of the blazing sun. This behaviour can be quite un-nerving to those who don’t know much about Solifugids and has led the birth of many urban legends about Solifugids in Iraq amongst American soldiers.

The desert floor is the hunting ground of these creatures who spend their day deep in the crevices of rocks or nooks amongst roots or wherever they can hide from the heat and light of the Sun. They emerge after dark, still careful to keep in the deep shadows or even deeper, if possible. Being cup or saucer-sized, a Solifugid in the light is guaranteed to get screams from the female members of a party. In actuality, they are completely and totally harmless to man!

Each self-respecting garden in the Thar desert has a solifugid so did my garden in ‘Casa Grande’ as we colloquially referred to my modest bungalow. So it happened one day, as we sat in the garden at dusk with some of the verandah light weakly illuminating patches between our legs and those of the chairs, that a shadowy figure darted in between causing my wife to involuntarily lift and fold her legs onto the chair.

”Ashwin”, she said, ”there is a crab under my feet!”

”Dont worry dear, just a desert crab, I’m sure!” was my enlightened response. Those were the days when I too was ignorant about Solifuges, not having been introduced to any, thank you!

The kids immediately said, ”Where, where?”

But the solifuge wisely decided to stay out of the limelight and so a torch was sent for and obtained. The torch beam was pointed here and there between our legs but with limited success, for, the creature, once illuminated refused to stay put! Now this became a prestige issue for the family. I always maintain that any creepy or crawlie which heads towards us does so at his own embarrasment and risk. The family rallied together and cornered the recalcitrant beast. It was a most curious creature!

Photographed at last! The first solifugid.

Photographed at last! The first solifugid.

A solifuge looks like a thorny, bristly, cross between an insect and a large spider. Though it may look poisonous or venomous, it is not. It has an insect-like body but with eight ten legs instead of six, with the forward-most pair of ‘leg’s actually being pedipalps which are used for feeding and capturing prey. The solifugid has a pair of eyes perched closely together at the top of his head and you very soon get the feeling that he understands whatever is happening and knows everything! The solifugid kept moving throughout the garden and we succeeded in getting photographs by night despite my inexperience in photography.

At that point of time my kids were going through a scorpion fetish. The scorpion mania took the form of not just asking questions about scorpions or reading about them, but by incarcerating any scorpion foolish enough to come within ten yards of the two. Aashay in his quiet confident way mastered the art of capturing scorpions safely and painlessly. He would herd a scorpion onto a large piece of cardboard and once the creature got onto it he would place an empty jar upturned over it and flip the cardboard so that the scorpion first found that he was trapped on a cardboard with glass all around, then found himself falling through space into the glass-jar as it was inverted. Many unwary scorpions on venturing out after dark now found themselves part of a glass-jar menagerie. But with Solifugids around, scorpions are small game. Inevitably, desires escalated and it was resolved that there was no reason why they should not catch a Solifugid, so the scorpions were gratified to gain clemency, a larger piece of cardboard and a larger jar were procured and in due course of time the Casa Grande solifugid was trapped!

''Soli'', the first camel-spider pet in our family.

''Solli'', the first camel-spider pet in our family. Note his pointed jaws which are chelicerae. He has two above and two below which have a strong pincer grip.

Aditi promptly declared that the scorpions had been Dada’s pets so this pet was hers! This was violently contradicted and like siblings the world over the two feuded and had a fierce yelling match with accusations and counter-accusations. The matter was finally resolved with a truce suggested by the Missus that the Solifugid was to be shared till they procured another when they each would have their own! My forceful remonstrations that while by catching the Solufugid they had proved a point but that keeping it would not be a good idea, were not even acknowledged by anyone.

If you have a pet, it must have a name. So Solifugid number One was promptly named ”Soli”! The Solifugid then proceeded to become the darling of our lives. It had a large plastic bread-box as a temporary home. Here he paraded while he was inspected and examined and shown to anyone within range!

Solli took grave exception to being disturbed. Even a finger extended towards him outside the translucent box angered him. Then he would sway back and forth on his legs waving his forward pair threateningly and gnashing his jaws in a up-down motion. At one time, he took such an exception to a toothbrush waved at him that he jumped and almost succeeded in escaping out of the box. This performance increased his value and he became a dearer pet to Aditi.

Gesturing fiercely with his front legs!

Gesturing fiercely with his pedipalps!

The very next day, another Solifugid, this time a juvenile was caught in a neighbouring compund, and there was another fight before it was decided as to which Solifugid belonged to whom. The juvenile then underwent the indignity of being christened ”Rustam”. Rustam was overall smaller in size, his legs were proportionally smaller, he was more docile or well-behaved but he was never quite as interesting as ”Solli”.

''Rustam'' joins the family.

''Rustam'' joins the family.

That night I had nightmares of finding myself sharing the bed with a solifugid instead of my wife! Fortunately for all concerned, the Solifugids had resolutely refused all offers of vegetarian and non-vegetarian food so that I could lay down the law. The kids agreed very reluctantly to release them but not without an elaborate release ceremony the following evening. Though Rustam and Solli had ended their membership of the Baindur family, Solli continued to be seen on his night-time hunts in the garden.

Free at last!

Free at last!

Soli, seen once again, patrolling his garden!

Solli, seen once again, patrolling his garden!

Thus ended the saga of the strangest pets that our family had!