The ‘roons of Artesia - are they dangerous?

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Vinegarones mating

It was one hot Artesian summer night, so no sheets or blankets were anywhere in evidence. Don’t believe in air conditioning. In any given year, I might kick on the swamp cooler for a couple of hours, maybe six times total, during the warmer months. Quite frankly, I get angry when it goes under 80°F.

I was sound asleep on my floor mounted mattress (never mind why it was there) when something crawled, tickling slightly, across my bare back. For many, maybe most folks, that would have been enough to wake even the dead, sending them screaming toward the nearest exit. My subconscious recorded the incident and decided to take no action, the arthropod could be captured in the morning. My subconscious scares me sometimes. I could tell you stories…

Once again, something scampered over my back. This time, my subconscious figured it might be a large centipede, meaning the situation could get nasty. Immediate action was required. I woke up and switched on the light and turned to see a gorgeous vinegaroon with front legs flailing away on the bed.

There was only one thing to do. I picked her up, found a clean cage, gave her some water, and went back to bed. Hey, we (the American Tarantula Society) sell these for a nice piece of change. A centipede would have been better; you can get triple what the vinegaroons bring in. The tooth fairy never left that much money under any pillow.

Artesia is a veritable gold mine of vinegaroons. I’ve lived and collected in California, Arizona, and Texas, and searched for arthropods at some point in nearly every other state. Never have I seen vinegaroons sauntering around in large numbers like they do in Artesia. Even better, they often turn themselves in instead of having to be hunted down.

The arachnid order of whipscorpions is a small one (called Uropygi, with about 130 species in two families worldwide). Of the two U.S. species, only one is common in places: Mastigoproctus giganteus, the giant vinegaroon, and it’s also the largest species in the entire order. This species is supposed to extend throughout the southern states from Florida to California, but West Texas, Arizona and New Mexico are the places they are seen the most.

Unlike what the name would imply, whipscorpions have no stinger. Instead, their tail has evolved into a whip-like appendage, hence their name. From the tip of their tail to the pedipalps, they can measure up to six inches, but 3 1/8 inches is the normal body length of the adults, tail (and batteries) not included. They usually carry their light-sensitive tails arched over their backs, or to the side as do scorpions. They are poor-sighted, appearing to many observers as being completely blind in spite of their six eyes, arranged in three dyads, on the cephalothorax. They are nocturnal, hiding or burrowing under stones, logs, sand or soil during the day and coming out to hunt at night. They appear to like the habitat humans supply them better than natural settings. In Artesia, they enjoy digging burrows along and under sidewalks, and next to buildings and near trees. We give them habitat, water, and with the water, insects (food). This is one tough little animal, not endangered by humans for a change.

The whipscorpion’s primary defense against attack by other arthropod predators and small mammals or birds is a vinegar spray of acetic acid they shoot from paired anal glands under the base of their tail. This liquid also contains a small amount of caprylic acid which can slightly degrade the waxy exoskeleton of insects unfortunate enough to be hit with it. The vinegar-like odor is responsible for their vinegaroon name, also affectionately called ‘roons. Once used to being handled, most ‘roons will stop spraying and behave themselves.

The first pair of legs are very thin and flexible with a high level of muscular coordination since they are used as “feelers” or sensory devices. The last three pairs of legs are used for walking. When startled, the whip tail and first pair of legs are waved all about in an apparent attempt to detect the threatening intruder.

They have small chelicerae near the mouth comparable to a spider’s (minus the fangs), and highly enlarged, spiked pedipalps they use to grasp small insects like cockroaches, and crickets and other arachnids such as scorpions. They can use these pedipalps to mildly pinch an exposed human finger, but stroking the pedipalps while handling them appears to have a calming effect on the animal.

Whipscorpion mating rituals embody the male transferring a spermatophore, or sperm package, to the female similar to the way scorpions do it. Courtship is reminiscent of the scorpions, with some kind of dance taking place in order for the male to present himself to the female as the correct species (as well as a real nice guy). He leads her over his spermatophore attached to the ground, and she picks it up. Unlike scorpions, the actual courtship ritual dance of the whipscorpions may last for days. These fun-loving arachnids apparently enjoy a good, long dance now and then.

The female lays up to 40 large eggs which she carries in a membranous sac under her abdomen. Once they hatch, the young ride on the mother’s back until their first molt, when they will wander off on their own.

Whipscorpions are highly patient hunters. When alerted to the presence of prey such as relatively fast moving crickets, they switch to slow search mode, carefully and gently feeling around with their first pair of legs until they can track down and finally seize the prey, usually after many unsuccessful attempts.

Terribly lethal to cockroaches, crickets and such, they are completely harmless to humans. They have only the mildly irritating vinegar spray for defense; ‘roons do not have venom, nor anything to even bite with. The only way I can imagine a human can be harmed by ‘roons is by trying to swallow three or four of them at once, which might result in choking. Because they are harmless with a vengeance, I’ve long recommended that people afflicted with arachnophobia adopt a ‘roon. and watch what it does closely. If you’re like most, the gentle creature that used to look like something from the darkest hell will begin to look as cute and innocent as a kitten. Actually, kittens are orders of magnitude more dangerous to us than ‘roons.