Camel-spiders & Urban Legends

- Large, mostly harmless desert arthropods -

Summary: These fairly large but mostly harmless arthropods are related to spiders and are found in deserts worldwide. They have become the subject of an urban myth, or legend, that has circulated on the Internet for a number of years.

Jack DeAngelis, PhD
OSU Ext. Entomologist (ret.)

Camel-spiders, or windscorpions, are neither true spiders nor true scorpions. They belong to a separate group of arachnids called solifugids, or sunspiders. Solifugids are medium-large arachnids that occur mainly in arid regions of the world. They are nocturnal predators that can run very fast. The long, forward-projecting front "legs" are really pedipalps used in food-handling and mating. Solifugids are not venomous but may inflict a painful bite like any large arthropod.

note: The name "camel spider" is actually misspelled. Since these arachnids are not true spiders the correct spelling should be camelspider or camel-spider. However, popular usage is clearly on the side of "camel spider"; also called windscorpions and sunspiders

camelspider in Iraq
"Camel spiders" found in Iraq by US soldiers. Photographer unknown.

An urban legend, or urban myth, has sprung up around the camel-spiders found by US soldiers in the deserts of Iraq. In the spring of 2004 a photo of soldiers in Iraq holding what appears to be two large camel-spiders (above) began circulating on the Internet.

The two camel-spiders appear to be the size of the soldier's thigh, or larger. Reports circulated that these creatures were venomous and aggressive; both claims are false. This legend actually started in 1990-91 during the first Gulf War. See the Spider Myths & Facts site for additional history about this legend.

If you look closely you'll see that this picture is distorted somewhat. The distortion is caused by moving the camera very close to the specimen making the camel-spiders appear larger than they really are. Compare the size of the camel-spiders to the near jacket sleeve in the photo (right edge of photo) to get a true indication of size.

In the US solifugids are less than 2" (50 mm) in length (body) with a back leg to pedipalp span of around 4-5" (125 mm). In other regions of the world the total leg to pedipalp tip span can be as much as 6" (150 mm). So why are these arthropods commonly reported to be much, much bigger?

First, solifugids move fast. People are innately fearful of fast-moving arthropods and almost always exaggerate their size. Second, the long, forward-pointing pedipalps make the overall body size appear larger when viewed from above. While camel-spiders may serve as a good vehicle for teaching new soldiers about the dangers of desert wildlife, the real threats are from much smaller arthropods.

Truly dangerous insects, spiders and other arachnids in desert regions

Mosquitoes, sand flies** and scorpions, not camel-spiders, are the main arthropod threats in the deserts of the Middle East. Mosquitoes occur anywhere there is standing water and may transmit the malaria pathogen, and other serious diseases. Phlebotomine sand flies are small, delicate, hairy flies similar in appearance to drain flies (Psychodidae). They are vectors of the human pathogen causing leishmaniasis, a very serious skin and internal organ disease. Repellents containing DEET and permethrin-treated clothing, developed by the US military, are effective for both mosquitoes and sand flies (see Using Insect Repellents).

Finally, there are a number of scorpion species that can inflict a painful and sometimes venomous sting from their tail-mounted stinger. Because scorpions are relatively large they are more easily avoided than either mosquitoes or sand flies.

**sand flies are sometimes called sand fleas.

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