The camel spider has achieved a degree of notoriety in recent times due to several pictures of it making their way into the national press. However in actual fact this misunderstood arachnid is not even a spider at all, and in most ways is fairly different from one. The camel spider is actually only a common name for an order of over a thousand species collectively known as Solifugae, and they vary greatly in size and appearance. Other names for Solofugae include the wind scorpion, sun scorpion and sun spider.
The name Solifugae comes from Latin meaning those that flee from the sun, and as this suggests camel spiders are nocturnal. If uncovered during the day they will often run for the nearest shade, which is where they got their reputation for chasing people. In reality they are only trying to stay in your shadow, and so if you run away from them, they will run after you to remain out of the sun.
Although camel spiders are often mistaken for spiders, in reality the two are fairly different, with comparisons being made usually on the fact that they both have 8 legs and 3 body segments. However unlike spiders Solifugae cannot produce silk for webs, and also generally have very poor eyesight. Another major difference is that they have no venom, and also have jaws rather than just fangs, meaning that they are able to bits and chew rather than just stab at their prey.
Because of camel spiders hunting style, they have to rely on their brute force and powerful jaws to subdue their prey. This has lead to them getting a reputation as being a lot more ferocious than they really are. In reality, although they can eat things that are a similar size to themselves, they are also eaten by a lot of other species the same size as well. For example rats and scorpions will make short work of a camel spider, as will some tarantulas.
All camel spider species are carnivorous, and are also very active and aggressive hunters. They will attack and eat anything smaller then themselves although most feed primarily on small species such as termites or beetles. Once they have located their prey, they rip it apart with their two sets of vertical jaws, before liquidizing and eating it.
One of the myths about camel spiders that has as least some credence is that they can run as fast as a man. In actual fact they can run around 15mph, although higher speeds have been reported, which makes them the fastest arachnid species.They can run this fast because they need to attack their prey at speed to prevent it fighting back, and also because their eyesight is poor. The speed is used to make up for their lack of good sight because it allows them to run away from predators if they make a wrong turn.
For the most part, people tend to be afraid of camel spiders because of the fact that many species have very large visible jaws compared to their body size. However they posses no venom, and as such the worst that they could do to you is deliver a painful bite. Even with this being the case however, this is only usually the case if they are threatened or handled, and they will never attack anything larger then themselves of their own accord.
In actual fact however, camel spiders are beneficial to many areas due to the fact that they will eat many other worse species around the home. Poisonous spiders such as the hobo or brown recluse, as well as centipedes and small rodents will all decline if camel spiders are around. Unlike many other useful species, which will only eat on seldom occasions, camel spiders will often eat until they are too bloated to even move.
Although popularized by soldiers in Iraq in recent times, there are actually several species of camel spider in the United States as well, particularly in the hotter, more arid states. The truth is that largest camel spiders will only get to around 6 inches long, and they are a fairly rare species to encounter in most areas. They are much less abundant than say scorpions or tarantulas, and will usually only be commonly seen during the summer months.