For a long time, I’ve been known as somewhat of an arachnophile; I love spiders and scorpions, whipspiders and camel spiders. I’m a bit of a bug enthusiast in general, but even moreso than moths and mantids, I love spiders and scorpions.
It wasn’t always this way, however. As a child I was terrified of bugs, especially spiders. Even a dead spider or a spider shed skin would make my skin crawl – they still fascinated me, perhaps because of that fear, but I couldn’t get near them, let alone touch them. I attribute this partly to my grandmother, with whom I spent a great portion of my formative years, who was a textbook case arachnophobe.
When I was 19, I ended up getting my first pet tarantula, a Kilimanjaro Mustard Baboon Spider (Pterinochilus chordatus) as a way of sating my fascination and curiosity, and as a way of dealing with the fear. The fear swiftly fell away beneath a tsunami of fascination and within a couple of years I was keeping over 70 different species of tarantula (specialising in southern African species), half a dozen species of scorpions, and several other bugs. I became a member of the British Tarantula Society, and began taking spiders and bugs into schools to show children as part of an Educational Presentation.
Though I had to give the spiders away through various moves and relocations, finally having to give up Amelia (Mexican Red Knee – Brachypelma smithi) a couple of days before arriving in Zimbabwe. The consolation, besides getting to spend my life with the woman I love, was that Zimbabwe is home to a plethora of bugs and several of my favourite species of arachnid.
Back in September, Debbie (eagle eyed as she is) spotted a stunning wolf spider (Lycosidae) scuttling across the floor near the reception desk. Coming to rest by the lion statue there, I crouched down and snapped a few shots on my phone camera. Wolf Spiders are excellent hunters; they have huge eyes and once their prey is spotted they sprint after it at an astonishing pace and capture it, killing it quickly with potent venom (that isn’t dangerous to humans). They are also surprisingly caring mothers, carrying their young on their backs for several weeks after they hatch.Wolf spiders are easily recognisable by their eyes which are arranged into three rows; the first row is four very small eyes, followed by two enormous eyes, and a third row of two rear facing smaller eyes.
Wall Crab Spiders (Selenopidae) are a common sight around Zimbabwe. They get their name from their crab-like resting stance (usually face down) and the fact that they’re most commonly seen on house walls. In truth, they are likely all over the trees and rocks nearby too, but their resting pose and colouration make excellent camouflage on anything except plain coloured walls. They’re distinguishable from Wolf Spiders by their flat bodies (hence them also commonly being referred to as Flatties) and that their eyes are arranged into two rows, one of six, and a second row with two enlarged eyes used for hunting. One of these larger eyes has caught the flash of the camera in the above photo.
Another common sight on walls is the Huntsman spider (Sparassidae). Similar to Wall Crab spiders, Huntsman spiders are ambush predators. The Huntsman spiders, however, do not adopt the flat stance when resting, instead keeping their knees up and legs drawn in. Locally, they’re often known as Rain Spiders, as their arrival on the walls is believed to be an indication as to the onset of rainy weather. I’m not entirely sure why the spiders appear before the rainy weather, perhaps they don’t like being in the wet, or perhaps their breeding season or some other biological trigger happens to coincide to that particular time of year.
On the other end of the hunting spider section are Salticidae, the Jumping Spiders. These tiny little guys are some of the most exceptional arthropods in the world. They’ve been shown to have incredible eyesight and problem solving skills, and they’re so gosh-darned cute. A jumping spider is easily recognisable, they have two massive forward facing eyes, and will turn their head to “regard” you if you close in on them. They are inquisitive, astonishing hunters (when you watch a jumping spider leap from a stem of grass and catch a fly mid-air, you gain a whole new level of respect for them), and completely harmless to humans. Sadly, due to their size, they’re also very difficult to identify to a species level. Some, however, have vibrant colours (as they are the only spider that can see in colour) and do fantastic little mating dances. I’d wholeheartedly recommend typing “jumping spider mating dance” into YouTube. I defy you to not fall in love with these little characters.
Lynx Spiders (Oxyopidae) are another small species of hunting spider. Their name comes from their cat-like stalking behavior and, whilst not quite as adept as Jumping Spiders, they are still capable hunters, able to leap and catch prey mid-air. Lynx Spiders lack the large “puppy-dog”Salticidae eyes of the Jumping Spiders but are readily identifiable by large hairs that jut out from their legs at right angles, and the angular almost coffin-shaped abdomen. Unlike the Salticidae, Oxyopidae tend to be very skittish, making photography of these little spiders even more difficult as they sprint for cover at the slightest disturbance. Again, I have never heard of any being bitten by a Lynx Spider and none of them have venom that is considered dangerous to humans.
Of course, spiders aren’t the only arachnids endemic to this area. Cousins to the spiders are the scorpions. Scorpions have pincers (correctly called chelae) in front of their eight legs, and a long tail (technically a postabdomen called a metasoma) ending in a telson, or sting.
Above is a Robust Rock Scorpion (sometimes called an African Yellow-legged Scorpion – Opisthophthalmus carinatus), about 6″ in total length. This particular one had crawled it’s way into the kitchen before being rescued by Karry. Despite its fearsome appearance, these scorpions are very docile and rarely sting, and their venom, whilst certainly painful, is not dangerous to humans. They have little bumps on their large chelae which they use to sense their environment, and they use those large chelae like spades to dig burrows under rocks.
A few nights ago, I was woken up around 2am by Karry who had felt something on her arms and legs. When we turned the light on, we found a Flat Rock Scorpion (Hadogenes troglodytes) scurrying across the duvet. Unfortunately, suddenly being in the light and the open must have scared the critter as he would not sit still for a photo. We carefully cupped him up and dropped him off outside. These scorpions are very safe, rarely use their sting, and the venom is not dangerous to humans. They don’t dig their own burrows and instead rest between rocks where they have adapted their long tails to sweep sideways rather than overhead, using them only in confined spaces as a deterrent. There’s a general rule of thumb with scorpions, small tail and large chelae are not dangerous (as they rely on the chelae to crush their prey), whereas small chelae and a large tail indicates a reliance on potent venom. This species exemplifies this wonderfully.
On the other end of that rule are scorpions of the Butidae species. Everyone in Africa learns to identify Parabuthus scorpions, or they at least keep a healthy distance from all scorpions just in case it’s a Parabuthus. These scorpions have small chelae and a very large, thick metasoma ending in a bulbous telson packed with very nasty venom.
If stung, the sting is immediately felt as a burning pain with swelling. After a short while, several symptoms may occur; cramping, pins-and-needles, involuntary muscle movements, an increased or decreased pulse rate, excessive sweating, difficulty in speaking and breathing, and excess saliva production, headaches, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, and in extreme cases asphyxiation resulting in death. The stings are, however, treatable of the patient seeks medical aid swiftly.
This particular specimen, safely in an enclosure at the Victoria Falls Snake Park, Parabuthus transvaalicus, is known as the Spitting Scorpion. It’s quite unique amongst scorpions in its ability to spray it’s venom over short distances, and is thus not to be tripled with. Despite the inherent dangers, I still find these creatures fascinating, and they are astonishing creatures that have not changed in millions of years.
I still miss Amelia, but it’s nice to be able to get close to so many wild arachnids. If you’re on Instagram and like spiders, scorpions, insects, and other bugs, you can find me @bkelly_cs, as I’m constantly stopping and snapping pictures of bugs and arachnids as I spot them.
Of course, I wholeheartedly intend to write a similar blog to this about some of the insects and beetles I’ve spotted. I hope you enjoy them and find them informative. I’m also hoping by now you’ve worked out what the spider in the header image is. Scroll up, take a look and a guess.
If you said Wall Crab Spider, you’re spot on!