I think I’m due an undirected rant, and so let’s have a look at this news article.
The entomological pedant (2) within me would like to make known the following:
1. Most critically, final paragraph, the camel spider, or solifugid, is not an insect, for the love of all that’s chitinous. This utter failure of knowledge, in an age when research is as simple as pressing a button, is morbidly depressing. For the record, my guess is that the journalist got as far as discovering that the “camel spider” was not actually a spider, and leapt (as indeed solifugids do (3)) to entirely the wrong conclusion. For the record the enormous piece of biological machinery dominating the front of the beastie is its chelicera, the defining characteristic of arachnids and their close relatives.
2. Also not poisonous. Well, this isn’t exactly as clear cut, as poison is an analogue development, starting with saliva and working up, but authorities are reasonably unanimous that solifugids aren’t poisonous, and if they were, it’s extremely unlikely that it would be poison that would do much to anything bigger than a rat. There’s a reasonable simple test for poison in an animal’s physiology: redundant structures are slowly weeded out by evolutionary pressures, simply because an animal that can build itself more “cheaply” (4) by losing or reducing something useless has a reproductive advantage over its peers. There is a general rule with scorpions, for example, that if your specimen has big claws, then it has weaker poison, whereas if it has a big tail, well, watch out. A scorpion that relies on its sting doesn’t need to dismember fiercely resisting prey or even hold them very long. In the same way, a snake, relying on poison (or even constriction), needs strong jaws, but not jaws like a crocodile.
Now look at the very handsome solifugid pictured in the story. There are two remarkable things about these particularly lovely monsters. Firstly, they are amongst the fastest runners in the invertebrate kingdom, and secondly they have perhaps the largest jaw-to-body ratio of anything in the world (5). They destroy their prey by mechanical force, or why have such enormous gnashers in the first place? They will have a saliva that will break down the mashed-up carcase of their luckless victims into a liquid, drinkable form, but it’s a far cry from the delicate injection of a true spider.
Because certain political ventures have led to a great many westerners doing the grand tour of the middle east, camel spiders have become something of a bete noir. A friend in the forces informs me that they are held in such superstitious dread that possibly the Taliban are missing a trick. Certainly I’m reliably informed tha they’re called camel spiders because they kill camels, latching onto their bellies and burrowing inside them, to consume them from the inside out (7). We’re talking several hundred pounds of camel killed and eaten by an arachnid that is, at most six inches long. Somebody call Weightwatchers.
The Daily Mash version of the story, in fact, is almost a contender for scientific accuracy
Anyway, enough of the peeved amateur scientist. For those who find the whole subject of camel spiders distressing, including apparently the entire armed forces of NATO, I present this story as a salve:
So: a tame dolphin, released into the wild, has taught wild dolphins a trick. Whoop de do. Except…
There’s an alarming interpretation that can be put on this: Billy the dolphin has learned that the world works a certain way: he does the trick, he gets the fish. Assuming dolphins are able to communicate abstract ideas, by no means impossible, Billy has gone back to his mates in the wild and said… what? Surely not: “look, I can walk on my tail, it’s hard work and unnatural behaviour, but wow is it fun, and you can see for miles!” No, surely, for dolphins are real animals with real needs rather than some mystical symbolic happy-hippy fish, surely Billy said “if you do this, then fish shall come”.
And let’s say they did it, and then caught some fish, because dolphins are fairly accomplished with the whole fish-catching shenanigans. Well then, they’d do it again, wouldn’t they. They’d get more dolphins to do it. It’s the fish dance. It brings fish.
We may, in short, have precipitated the first dolphin religion.
(1) Which should read, of course, to follow the mode of speech I’m drawing it from “ur doin it wrong”, but one must have standards, mustn’t one.
(2) The etymological pedant within me would also like to point out that the words “insect” and “entomology”, whilst deriving from different languages (latin and greek respectively I think) both refer to the same characteristic of insects, that they are divided into bits. Why this should dominate the scientific view of insects, compared to, say, the six legs or some similar, I’m not sure.
(3) They leap, that is. They don’t leap to the wrong conclusions. or not so far as I’m aware. Maybe that explains the camel-attacking business mentioned later.
(4) Role-players should be naturals at understanding evolution. It’s all about the character points.
(5) A combination of traits just waiting to be made into a horror movie (6)
(6) In which movie they will, of course, be poisonous. And probably insects for all I care.
(7) Curiously similar to how Pliny reckoned otters killed crocodiles. A more germaine question would be why Pliny reckoned otters killed crocodiles (8)
(8) Unless the otter is very large, and the crocodile very small.