Spider-hunter seeks 'spawn of Satan'

Arachnid research brings team to Del Puerto Canyon

May 30, 2010 

Paula Cushing

Paula Cushing

UNKNOWN — unknown


      • OFFICIAL NAME: Solifugae, an order of arachnids, but they are neither spiders nor scorpions; they're called camel spiders because of their humped profile

      • ALSO KNOWN AS: Sun spiders, wind scorpions, niña de tierra

      • NATURE: Usually light-brown in color, camel spiders tend to be nocturnal, are fast movers and are not venomous; on average, they range in size from 1 to 2 inches, but their long legs make them appear larger.

      • FOUND IN: Rocky habitats and dune systems in North and South America, Africa, Asia and the Middle East

      • THE PROJECT: Funded by a U.S. National Science Foundation grant, researchers from all over the globe are catching and analyzing camel spiders, an understudied species. Members of the Denver Museum of Nature & Science set up traps this month at the Frank Raines Regional Park, near Del Puerto Canyon.

A spider wrangler of sorts, Paula Cushing has traveled to every desert in America tracking down different types of arachnids. Her most recent study -- the camel spider -- has brought her research team to Stanislaus County.

In early May, Cushing set up traps to catch camel spiders at Frank Raines Regional Park in Del Puerto Canyon, west of Patterson. She'll return with other researchers in early June to hopefully pick up as many as two dozen of the light-brown creatures.

Cushing lovingly refers to the eight-legged Solifugae as the "spawn of Satan" because they are so difficult to learn about.

"They are an understudied, poorly understood group of arachnids," she said. Cushing is department chair and curator of invertebrate zoology at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science and director of the American Arachnological Society. "They're important predators in desert ecosystems. Like scorpions, they control the insect population."

Cushing is joined by arachnid researchers from across the world who hope to learn more about the camel spider's biology, natural history and population structure. Funded by a U.S. National Science Foundation five-year grant, Cushing's portion is a few hundred thousand dollars and pays for travel and stipends of the researchers working with her, she said.

It's rare for researchers to complete this kind of field work at Stanislaus County parks, staff said. Frank Raines is an off-highway vehicle park with steep terrain where people come for hiking, wildlife viewing, deer and pig hunting, off-roading and picnicking.

Cushing said she focused on collecting samples at Frank Raines by studying where past camel spiders have been found. She's interested in seeing if the land still has the same numbers.

Although the project may seem obscure, Cushing said it's important to the understanding of life.

"The bulk of species on Earth are not mammals, the ones we know a lot about. It's the creepy, crawly stuff," Cushing said. "I think it's important to have a better understanding of who we share this Earth with."

For more information on the camel spider project, visit www.solpugid.com. Anyone who has live species they'd be willing to give up, can e-mail Cushing at Paula.Cushing@dmns.org.

Bee staff writer Michelle Hatfield can be reached at mhatfield@modbee.com or 578-2339.

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