By Steve Wilson

One day a few years back, I was at my place in the lower Daintree Rainforest planting a tree. I moved a piece of rotting wood that was in the place I wanted to plant the tree. Then I noticed a small crab like creature with babies on its back looking up at me very nervously. I got down to have a closer look, and I noticed it was a very small whip scorpion, (Charinus pescotti) about the size of a five cent piece. I gently using a desert spoon lifted it up put it in a plastic container. Then I took a couple of pictures of it with my phone and I gently put it and its babies back where I found them. Replacing the rotting log and then I proceeded to plant my tree in another location. It was the third time I had seen one since moving to Far North Queensland. Both the other times where just a brief look or a fleeting glimpse of one scurrying very fast along a mossy log and rocks on spotlighting adventures that I had been on years before on the Atherton Tablelands. I did manage to get a few minutes of film of one of them but it’s not the best quality. I had also seen bigger versions of them in documentaries that could reach 60cm in length and in movies. Such as the first Harry Potter movie and I had found them to be both fascinating and the stuff of nightmares.

 To be honest I didn’t even think we had whip scorpions in Australia until I saw one with my own eyes. Now I know we have four described species from two genera in two families all found in Northern Australia in rainforests and caves on Christmas Island. In Arnhem Land and from Townsville to Cape York that have been discovered and described to date, and probably a few more that still remain undiscovered or are unrecognised. A new species was discovered in the Kimberly region in Western Australia in 2013.

Whip Scorpions belong to the phylum Arthropoda, they are in the class of Arachnida and the order Amblypygi. They are basically spiders and true scorpion’s cousins and there are approximately 140 species of them worldwide. They have flattened bodies that enable them to hide under tree bark, logs and rocks. Australian whip scorpions are tail-less unlike some species found in rainforests around the world. Like spiders they have a body that is divided into two sections by a membrane called a pedicel. But other than a slight resemblance and habit of eating insects they don’t have much more in common.

Whip scorpions are non-venomous and unlike spiders they do not produce silk and are completely harmless to humans. They have four pairs of legs with the fourth pair being thin and wispy resembling and acting like a set of antennae. Called antenniform they are specially modified legs that can be used to feel their surroundings or even herd prey into the strike zone. At the head end they have a pair of spiny club like appendages called pedipalps. In male spiders these are used as sex organs to transfer sperm to a female. Whip scorpions use them like a set of clubs to bash and pulverise their prey. They also use them to hold the prey item near the mouth parts called the chelicerae while turning it into an easily digestible pulp ready to eat. I’m sure male spiders cringe whenever they see them doing this.

Male whip scorpions initiate courtship with a series of ritualised movements involving gently tapping on the female’s body with their antenniform and grasping her in an embrace using the pedipalps then rocking back and forth. After some light dancing the male eventually produces a sperm packet called a spermatophore and guides the female over it. Where it is taken up into her genital opening called a gonopore and fertilised. Female whip scorpions secure their eggs to the underside of their abdomen. Eggs are produced in a sac that protects them from drying out and they remain there for the entire incubation period. This can take about three months and the female will stop eating during this time and just protect the eggs. After the eggs hatch the young whip scorpions hang out on mums back for a couple of weeks or more. Until they moult their skins for the first time and their tiny bodies harden up. Only then can they face the world on their own and wreak havoc on any tiny invertebrates unlucky enough to cross their path. They reach sexual maturity after several moults. Whip scorpions also known as Amblypygids, Tailless Whip Scorpions and Whip Spiders because of their outward appearance. Are nocturnal predators that hunt using stealth. They can move very slowly into position then strike with lightning speed to ambush and subdue their prey. They have even been witnessed jumping into the air to catch an insect flying by. Or diving below water to catch an unsuspecting victim. They can move very quickly sideways like a crab or walk forwards slowly and stealthily using their antenniform to guide the way

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