A guest post by Kristin
“So, are you afraid of solifugids, too?” my husband asked, questioning me about my life long fear of spiders while writing his first book, The Smaller Majority. Now, I am not your stereotypical girl, revolted by and fearful of insects of all types. I love insects and pride myself on knowing more about them than most laymen. Consequently, I really didn’t want to admit that I didn’t know what a solifugid was, nor did I want to add any other arthropods to my shameful “eek!” list. Picturing something like an amblypigid, I replied, “Pfft, sheesh, phuff, no, of course not. Just spiders.” Little did I know.
The first time that I ever saw a solifugid was in South Africa in 2009. Long after nightfall, our group had finally made it to our accommodations – a research station in the hills of Cederberg. The mattresses were stained and soaked with things unholy, and bats were roosting and pooping in the rafters of the kitchen, but the real problem was the spiders. Big, hairy, and speedy.
It began to dawn on me that I couldn’t stay in that room, but we were hours away from any alternative. As I began to wrap my head around this puzzle, I heard commotion outside one of the rooms. Piotr was gasping things like, “Oh boy!” and scrambling for his camera gear in a way that suggested that he’d found something really “cool”, and our friend Maciej was pounding on the door, yelling in his thick Polish accent, “Corey! There’s a solifugid coming into your room!” The doors didn’t meet the floor, you see. Of course they didn’t. There was enough of a gap that the mouse-sized, spider-like thing that we stood staring at was able to skitter under Corey’s door without even ducking its head or pausing at chewing on a grasshopper.
So, I finally learned: solifugids look like a cross between a bleached mouse and a spider, and they live in dry regions in South Africa. Also, charmingly, they are carnivores. I slept in the car that night and the following morning we paid the spiders for our room and board. It wasn’t until 2 years later that my solifugid lessons resumed, at graduate level.
Again, I was in South Africa. Again, I was in Cederberg. Again we were staying in the type of accommodation that makes biologists “oooh” and “ahhh” and walk around, poking into corners with a junky’s avarice. Make no mistake- Cederberg is one of my favorite spots on the planet. It’s gorgeous and fascinating. It just needs some screens, and I’ll tell you why…
One evening, as the entomologists set out to see what could be found in the darkened crevices of the mountains, I deferred, pulled a couple of chairs to the middle of the verandah, poured some wine, made a snack plate, put my feet up, and opened a book.
It wasn’t long, maybe only a half hour of sipping, reading, nibbling, and pausing to feel the warmth of everything right, before things changed. A cat emerged from an unlit corner and as I leaned forward with an “Oh, hey kit…tie…”, I saw that it was stalking something. A mouse? I thought hopefully, naively. No, this was Africa. The cat was not chasing a mouse. What it was batting at looked like a mouse, to be sure. A large, bleached mouse that began to run like the wind. I froze, recalling platitudes- it’s more scared of me than I am of it; it wants to avoid me; it won’t climb my chair, or the walls, then lose its grip on the ceiling and fall down the back of my shirt collar…
As I was trying to calm myself with this mantra, the solifugid raced directly to my chair, and attempted to climb a leg. I jumped to stand on the chair- though, I couldn’t but note, nowhere near as quickly as the solifugid was moving. Supposedly, they can run over 6 inches per second, which earned them one of their common monikers- wind spiders- but I’m here to insist that when feral cats are chasing them, they easily set new PR’s.
The cat was in hot pursuit, so rather than struggle to grip my chair legs and race up to tangle itself in my hair, the solifugid bolted to another dark corner of the porch. Other than seeing the shadowy figure of the cat racing and pouncing, I had no idea where it was. I looked behind me at the door to our chalet. It wasn’t more than 3 feet away, but I didn’t feel confident that I could make it before the solifugid did, wherever it was.
Then suddenly, there it was, scrambling up the side of the wall and toward me without losing any of its breakneck speed, the cat trailing it along the floor. I may have screamed, I don’t know. What I do remember was cursing Piotr in my head- while trying to convince me that there was no need to sleep in the car during that first encounter, at the Spider Chalet, he had absentmindedly assured me not to worry, the solifugid wouldn’t climb anything. It was said with the distracted air of a man telling his wife that yes, he has noticed her haircut and likes it, so I should have known better.
As it passed over the door and zoomed back toward the floor, I knew that I had to act. I jumped from the chair and made for the door. The solifugid reversed course and came straight for me. I jumped back up on the chair (I learned later, when relaying this story to Piotr, who seemed to see it more from the solifugid’s perspective than mine, that they seek safety in shadow, and the shadow that I cast as I moved, intent on my own escape, made me an unwitting attractant.)
Confused, it turned to dart back toward the shadows again, and this moment’s hesitation allowed the cat to get a good whack in. The solifugid reared up and presented the cat with its enormous, open jaws, and lunged. The cat jumped backed, stunned and impressed. With another lunge for good measure, the solifugid took advantage of the cat’s reverence for its display and zipped into the dark. The cat followed, slowly- back in stalking mode- and I made my second jump from the chair, frantically fumbled the door open, and burst into the cabin, eyeing the gap fretfully and wondering why it wasn’t a priority anywhere in Cederberg to fashion doors to meet the ground.
I sat in the middle of my bed and aimed my headlamp like a sentry at the screenless window, which opened directly onto the verandah that I had just fled, and waited for the others to return from their night collecting. I tried to shut the window, but the heat was unbearable. After a day of baking at well over 114F in the sun, the cabin needed all night to cool down. Hours passed. Finally, I laid back. I opened a nearby book and exhaled. Cue something, of course. It was the cat, jumping in the window. Why? On the tail of the solifugid again? Why else would it have come in? This is what I had to assume. War rules.
I will never know if the cat, which soon exited through the kitchen, came in because it was chasing something. But what I do know is that entomologists can stay out in the dark for eons and, when they return in their exultant state, don’t think to wonder about overturned chairs, scattered snacks, and splayed books in the middle of the porch. They walk right by with their containers and baggies held up for rapturous inspection, like urbanites immersed in their cell phones, and seem startled to see you awake and upright, just before dawn- “Oh, hey baby- what are you doing up?”