The Solifuges, or Sun Spiders, are a diverse order of Arachnids of which 241 species (of 6 different families) occur here in the southern parts of the African continent – that’s almost a quarter of all the Solifugae species found on earth. While most species are associated with arid scrub and deserts, there are species occurring in virtually every corner of South Africa.
Some species are exceptionally large, with bodies measuring 7cm in length and boasting a leg span of as much as 16cm – the size of a side plate!
Solifuges are solitary creatures, and depending on the species are either diurnal or nocturnal. When not actively out hunting they hide in tunnels up to 23cm deep that they dig themselves under logs and rocks. Females reproduce only once, laying as many as 200 eggs in a tunnel she digs and often guards until the eggs hatch about a month later.
Though they look scary, are fast moving and quite aggressive, Solifuges pose no danger to humans other than a painful bite. They are not venomous at all and rely on their speed and imposingly grotesque jaws to catch and overpower their prey – mainly insects and other invertebrates, but they have even been recorded catching small reptiles and rodents much larger than themselves!
Their colloquial Afrikaans name “Baardskeerder”, meaning “Beardshaver”, comes from a (probably) mistaken belief that they will cut pieces of hair or beard from sleeping humans – females of some species are known to use hair and fur to line their tunnels but this is probably collected rather than harvested. To my mind their impressive jaws are also reminiscent of sheep-shears. On hot days diurnal species seek out shade, and if that shade happens to be provided by a moving human, they will follow you around at whatever speed you’re trying to use to put distance between the solifuge and yourself with hilarious consequences and leading to another traditional Afrikaans name of “jaagspinnekop” (chasing spider) for these creatures.
Solifuges have difficulty adapting to captivity, usually dying within a week or two of being captured, though they can live for up to a year in the wild. Attempting to keep one as a pet is therefore strongly discouraged.