The name Daddy long-legs conjures images of swift, leggy creatures, but depending on where you live, the image you see in your mind may not be the creature pictured here. The name can refer to a particularly common house spider, a crane fly, or this delightful animal—a harvestman.
Harvestmen are arachnids, and are often confused with spiders—eight legs, roundish body, move quickly—but they are in a separate order from the spiders, and have important differences.
The most obvious distinction is the body shape. Spider bodies are divided into two sections, but harvestman bodies are just one section.
Most people are familiar with the European harvestman (pictured), but most harvestmen are much more fierce-looking than the European ones. They sport vicious-looking spines, oversized pincers, and bizarre body shapes and colours. Perhaps this is where they get their reputation as “the most poisonous spider on the planet”. The truth is that, unlike spiders, none of the harvestmen have poison glands.
Harvestmen are primarily scavengers—eating dead insects, and the occasional tiny, slow-moving live insect (the European ones are said to like aphids). They have no need for poison except in defence, and here they are well-endowed. Most harvestmen have small pores on their backs that exude a smelly substance that repels most predators.
So the worst a harvestman can do is smell bad.
Of course, every kid who’s ever tried to catch a harvestman knows they have another defence mechanism—legs that break off easily. A harvestman’s legs act as a quick get-away mechanism if it is snatched by a predator—the leg snaps off easily in the predator’s mouth, allowing the harvestman to escape. Harvestmen seem to get along quite well with seven, six, even as few as four legs (look closely and you’ll notice the one I photographed has only seven legs).
These shy, gangly creatures are some of my favourites in the garden and in the forest, where hundreds of species abound, many of which are still undescribed by science.