Messages with attached photographs of two large camel spiders being held up by a soldier claim that the creatures are a danger to troops stationed in Iraq.
Camel spiders are real organisms, although they are not actually spiders. However, the description of the creatures in the circulating messages is inaccurate and the specimens in the photograph are not as large as they may seem at first glance.
Subject: Camel Spiders
From someone stationed in Baghdad. He was recently bitten by a camel spider which was hiding in his sleeping bag. I thought you’d like to see what a camel spider looks like. It’ll give you a better idea of what our troops are dealing with. Enclosed is a picture of his friend holding up two spiders. Warning: not for the squeamish!
This picture is a perfect example of why you don’t want to go to the desert. These are 2 of the biggest I’ve ever seen. With a vertical leap that would make a pro basketball player weep with envy (they have to be able to jump up on to a camels stomach after all), they latch on and inject you with a local anesthesia so you can’t feel it feeding on you. They eat flesh, not just suck out your juices like a normal spider. I’m gona be having night mares after seeing this photo!
Subject: Read the Text First!!!!
These things are huge!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
They run 10 mph, jump three feet, are a nocturnal spider, so only come out at night unless they are in shade. When they bite you, you are injected with Novocaine so you go numb instantly. You don’t even know you are bitten when you are sleeping, so you wake up with part of your leg or arm missing because it has been gnawing on it all night long.
If you are walking around and you bump something that is casting a shadow over it, and the sun makes contact with it, you better run. It will instantly run for your shadow, and scream the whole time it is chasing you.
PS. The one on the bottom is eating the one on the top. These are spiders found daily in IRAQ by the troops. Imagine waking up and seeing one of these beauties in your tent!!
As if they didn’t have enough to contend with, soldiers in Iraq face a sinister and creepy non-human threat as well – camel spiders!
Or so various messages that have been circulating since 2004 would have us believe. Most such messages are accompanied by a photograph that depicts a soldier holding up two apparently gigantic camel spiders.
Camel spiders are real organisms and they can grow quite large. However, the description of the creatures in the messages is seriously inaccurate and the specimens in the photograph are not as large as they may seem at first glance.
Similar stories about camel spiders are often posted to online forums and blogs where they tend to generate a lot of, sometimes heated, discussion. Indeed, perhaps because of their fearsome appearance, these relatively harmless creatures tend to generate a fair degree of hysteria and tall tales about them have become a part of contemporary folklore. Camel spider misinformation is nothing new.
Tales about soldiers and camel spiders go back to at least the first Gulf War, and myths about them have been around for many years. Nor are such stories restricted to Iraq alone.
It has been claimed that camel spiders can run up to 25 mph and make a squealing noise like children screaming. Furthermore, according to the legends, camel spiders can grow to gigantic sizes, leap large distances at a single bound and inject a powerful anesthetic that allows them to eat camels (and soldiers) alive.
However, a minimal amount of research on camel spiders shows that these claims are unfounded:
- Camel spiders are not actually spiders. They are in fact solifugids and, like spiders, they belong to the class Arachnida. Camel spiders are also known as wind scorpions and sun spiders.
- The creatures are completely non-venomous and do not inject anesthetic. In fact, they do not have the necessary biological apparatus to inject anything.
- They are silent except for the sound made by their jaws when eating.
- They do not eat camels alive or dead. They mostly eat other arthropods. Some eat lizards and, possibly, birds and small mammals.
- They do run very fast for Arachnids, but certainly not as fast as 25 mph.
- They cannot jump well at all, but some are good climbers.
- Solifugids are found worldwide, although they are more common in drier regions such as Iraq.
- Their bodies range in size from under 1 inch to around 2 inches in length. The outstretched leg span may reach around 6 inches.
Camel spiders are aggressive hunters and voracious feeders. They have strong enough jaws to inflict a painful bite to a human, generally when they are handled or cornered. Like bites from other creatures, a camel spider bite could become infected if not carefully treated. However, other than their capacity to bite, they are not generally considered a threat to humans.
Nonetheless, baseless rumours about the dangers of camel spiders still persist. Even the US Department of Defence has debunked the rumours:
Camel Spiders have spawned many rumors within the military over decades of service in the Middle East. However, the majority of these stories are untrue. Camel Spiders, which are not actually spiders at all, belong to the family Solifugae. They are not dangerous to humans and pose no threat to camels, either. Their bite can be painful, due to the animal’s large chelicerae, which are used to crush and chew smaller arthropods such as spiders and scorpions, but they have no ‘paralytic venom,’ as some rumors suggest.
National Geographic has also denounced the email message and photograph as a hoax:
In fact, the creatures in the photo aren’t spiders at all. They’re actually solpugids, or solifugids (aka camel spiders, aka wind scorpions). Along with spiders, they are members of the class Arachnida.
The eight-legged solifugids have no venom glands, and the largest species is no more than 15 centimeters (6 inches) long with its legs outstretched.
“If any solpugid has anything they can inject, I haven’t heard of it,” said Rod Crawford, an arachnologist at the Burke Museum in Seattle, Washington.
Crawford has been debunking this and other spider myths for several years. This rumor, he said, spread to Western countries during the 1990-91 Gulf War and has now reemerged and become even more widespread with the return of U.S. troops to Iraq.
The size of the specimens depicted in the photograph appears to be much larger than is normal for camel spiders. However, photographs can be deceptive – either accidentally or deliberately.
A closer examination of the photograph suggests that the apparent gigantic size of the camel spiders is most probably just a trick of perspective. Assuming that the soldier’s hand and the vertically dangling camel spiders are at approximately the same distance from the camera, we can use the size of the palm to calculate the actual size of the top solifugid’s body. This comparison indicates that the specimen is actually well within the known size range for camel spiders. The following images, cropped from the original photograph, should make this comparison clearer:
The soldier’s palm
The amount of space between the soldier’s wrist and the bottom of his shirt cuff can also be used as a reference to calculate the actual size of the camel spiders.
Moreover, a few minutes with a digital camera and a pair of willing helpers shows how easy it is to create the illusion of size:
The same spiders on a helper’s palm
A US Army CHPPM publication about camel spiders also concludes that the creatures depicted in the photograph are not as large as they look:
Myth vs.Measurement – Reports that Middle Eastern solifugids can grow to be the size of a dinner plate are not based on fact. Photographs purporting to show such solifugids are tricks of false perspective. In reality, solifugids in the region only reach a maximum length of around 2 inches (5 cm), and most are only about half as long.
Thus, although camel spiders are frightening in appearance and may bite humans, they are not the horrifically dangerous creatures depicted in these messages.