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Who’s the Daddy?

She moved slowly, cautiously, tapping the organic debris about her and seeming to make decisions about which way to go based on how things felt. I watched her move along the dried edge of a leaf from last fall. She raised her body above eight long, thin legs, using a couple of them to tap along the surrounding terrain, gathering information, making decisions about where to go next.

I used a magnifying glass to examine the detailed camouflage pattern of grays and browns on the back of her one-piece head and body. I looked into her face and saw two dark eyes the size of fine periods. She was fangless, but had a couple of appendages near her mouth that reminded me of spoons or small shovels set to dig into her next meal. She was webless. She was a daddy longlegs.

Daddy longlegs have been maligned with vicious rumors for years. It’s often claimed that these eight-legged creatures are spiders with a highly toxic venom that, due to some defect of their biting apparatus, they cannot effectively administer to us humans. Such talk should make these innocuous garden busybodies into a clear and present danger worthy of a change in the homeland-security color alert level. But, like some of the talk that has raised security-alert levels over the last few years, the threats posed by daddy longlegs are rumor presented as fact. So, let’s take a look at some real daddy longlegs facts.

First, this long-legged bug is not a spider. Its ancestors can be traced back hundreds of millions of years and they are closely related to spiders. While daddy longlegs are a bona fide member of the Arachnida class of creatures, this eight-legged strider has some distinguishing features that put them in a separate category of animals from their spider cousins. Below the level of class, at the subdivision of the creature category known as an order, spiders and daddy longlegs are in two distinct camps.

Among the over 3,000 species of daddy longlegs known on the planet, there are a number of characteristics where they differ from spiders. While most spiders (Araneae) have eight eyes and two segments to their bodies, daddy longlegs (Opiliones, though sometimes their order is given as Phalangida) have only two eyes and no distinguishable body segments. Members of the Opiliones order also do not spin silk or create webs, as is the case with most spiders. If you see one in a web, it’s likely that it has fallen prey to a spider and isn’t just visiting.

The second reason this “poisonous spider” rumor is false is that these long-legged bugs lack venom glands, which are a common feature of spiders. They can’t poison people because they do not have any poison. Instead of fangs, they have long palps near their mouths that sometimes look like short legs. These palps function to help get food into the animals mouth and contain cells that detect both smell and taste.

Instead of venom, daddy longlegs do pack another biological weapon to meet their defense needs. They have glands that produce a stink when they are threatened. You might get a slight nose-twisting whiff of a bug fart from these critters, but never a poisonous bite.

So, let the rumors about the toxic bite of daddy longlegs cease. Spread the truth about these simple critters and stop those malicious claims that they can seriously poison us. In fact, they actually do some environmental good for us.

These long-legged wonders are one of the legion of small critters responsible for recycling in the environment. Daddy longlegs are omnivorous, preferring decaying plant matter, but willing to chew down on the carcasses of other small bugs inhabiting the damp decomposing surroundings they often seek out. They have even been known to engage in cannibalism, having been observed chowing down on the remains of dead long-legged brethren.

In cropland settings, they are known to feed on a range of pests including aphids, leafhoppers, mites, slugs and beetle larvae. The entomology folks over at Cornell University have labeled them “generalist predators” for the range of their gastronomic predilections. Through their efforts at pest consumption, they help reduce crop damage. Their work in the fields may have gotten them the other name they also go by: harvestmen.

In my backyard, daddy longlegs tend to hang out near the surface of piles of plant leaves and compost heaps. They like to stay hidden beneath the organic debris during the day, particularly in moist areas. They prefer the local nightlife. They are easily disturbed from their daytime compost hideouts and readily take off running for more cover as if on a set of unsteady stilts.

While this bug’s long limbs look cumbersome, they are amazingly agile when moving through a chaotic jumble of plant debris. Like spiders, these critters are earless and hear through the vibrations they pick up along tiny hairs on their legs. The legs also serve as a defense mechanism in the face of predators. If a leg is lost, it will twitch where it falls with hopes of distracting an attacker, while the other seven limbs slip away together. According to current daddy longlegs research, as long as three legs are maintained in working order the animal can manage.

While spiders generally place their eggs in a silk container, daddy longlegs can’t spin thread so they lay their eggs without any such covering. Females are generally larger than their male consorts and lay the eggs they produce under rocks or in other protected cracks and crevices in the earth. In this part of North America, these creatures generally die off each fall. The eggs left behind persevere through the winter and hatch into a new generation the following spring.

As I dig about in my garden, the latest generation of daddy longlegs is rustled from their cool moist hideouts by my prying shovel. I wish them well.

—Tom Nattell

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