6 Mar 2017

The arachnid arms race

From Jesse Mulligan, 1–4pm, 2:22 pm on 6 March 2017

A massive weapons arsenal isn't just something humans seem hell-bent on developing. Members of the arachnid world are also in an arms race.

One woman who's particularly interested in the weapons of insects and spiders is Dr Christina Painting who is a Research Fellow at the school of biological sciences, University of Auckland.

Dr Painting is a fan of harvestmen, which she is in the midst of studying. In fact, she says she’s a fan of “all things creepy and weird”.

This includes bizarre looking things like the giraffe weevils on which she did her PhD.

“I’m interested in understanding why insects and these other arthropods have these big structures that we call weapons, things that allow males to fight with other males and get access to more females and lead to more mating opportunities.”

Dr Painting says there are about 20 species of harvestmen in New Zealand. They have massive crane-like jaws; if humans were the same our jaws would be 10 times the size of our bodies.

“One really neat thing about these guys is not only do they have these big weapons, they’re also incredibly variable in size, there are little ones with these tiny, tiny jaws, big ones that have these huge jaws and another totally different group with really long crane-like jaws.”

These odd creatures got their colloquial name because they were common during the harvest; their Latin name opiliones means sheep master because in days gone by shepherds would stand on stilts among their flock.

If you want to see them in their natural habitat night time is best. They are nocturnal and live on the forest floor or in caves.

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