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///A Visit From the Reaper

A Visit From the Reaper

It was an early autumn evening while sitting in repose in a stately northern red oak tree (Quercus rubra) that I recount a rather haunting tale of intrigue and misunderstanding. I had just settled in to the second hour of self-imposed confinement eighteen feet above the forest floor. My mind had already broken free from pondering the day’s engagements and the luring tasks yet to become. My senses were becoming acutely attuned to my present environment: to the little brown birds (Brownous birdasmalleaous) darting about in the understory gorging themselves on the abundant scarlet fruit proffered by the spicebush, to the sounds of squirrels united in disparaging me for invading their forest canopy, and to the cool gentle breeze flowing through my brown and gray but majority brown – regardless of how you see it initially – hair. It was during this spate of assumed mindfulness that I failed to notice its slow but steady approach. Floating effortlessly up the bole of my red oak was a demon so feared by my progeny as to cause her instant paralysis and uncontrollable sobbing at its mere sight; a beast conjured in an ancient world, whose venom, as unanimously confirmed by scholars from the finest American playgrounds, is the most toxic and hazardous substance in the world. I instinctively reached for my bow, but I knew realistically that my mortal arrows would be futile against a demon such as this. I was now eye to eye with a creature the French call the Reaper and the Germans call the Harvestor (of Sorrow). The stillness pervaded the woods as we gazed at one another in silence that only intensified the sound of my quickening (tell tale) heart. This day would not be my reckoning, however, as the creature looked onward and slowly resumed its ascent to what I hoped was a visit to those discourteous squirrels.

 

Harvestman (Leiobunum vittatum) perched on a leaf. These misunderstood omnivores are found in a wide variety of ecosystems such as grasslands, wetlands, basements and forests. Credit: Dan Mullin

 

Haunting as this was, I must now digress and heed to the “intrigue and misunderstanding” portion of my tale. You probably already surmised that this creature has other, less striking names such as the shepherd spider, harvestman and, the most commonly used, daddy longlegs. These arachnids have been wandering around every continent (except Antarctica) for over 400 million years and their form has changed little over that time. There are over 6000 species of harvestmen in the world, and they occupy a variety of ecosystems such as grasslands, wetlands, basements and forests. They are a very misunderstood arthropod and the antagonist in the greatest urban myth…that pertains to arthropods – Daddy longlegs are the most poisonous spiders in the world, but their mouths are too small to bite humans (or some derivation of that). Let’s run that up the flagpole. Harvestman are indeed arachnids but like scorpions, ticks and other arthropods in Arachnida Class they are not spiders. Harvestman do not have two separated body parts like spiders as their cephalothorax and abdomen are broadly fused. Harvestman also have only one set of eyes, no silk glands and, wait for it……… NO venom glands (ie. no venom).

Harvestman are rather intriguing (albeit still kind of creepy to me). Their chelicerae (mouthparts of arachnids) are not hollow fangs like spiders but grasping claws used for eating chunks of food. They are omnivores with a diet consisting of various soft bodied insects, worms, plants, fungi and detritus, and they mainly feed at night. Harvestman, like all arachnids, have 4 pairs of legs. The first pair, which are generally shorter, have a claw like structure on the first joint that is used to bring food to their mouths. Since their eyes cannot form images, they use their highly sensitive second pair of legs as antennas to sense their environment, detect food sources and potential danger/predation. Harvestman also have the ability to shed or self-amputate their appendages, a process called autotomy. These severed legs still emit electrical impulses like a pacemaker that causes the limb to twitch and can often distract predators giving them a better opportunity to escape. Harvestman cannot regenerate lost limbs like a lizard that loses its tail or a crustacean that loses its claw. Since autotomy reduces their overall fitness, harvestman often employ other defensive mechanisms to evade predation like the power of stink. Many harvestman have scent glands on their bodies that secrete foul smelling liquids when under duress as a way to warn predators that they may be awful tasting.

There are several dozen species of harvestman that call the mid Atlantic their home and most are from the genus Leiobunum. Although their phenology doesn’t limit their lifespan to one year, the winter frost in our region surely does. Other than the Eastern harvestman (Leiobunum vittatum), it doesn’t appear that arachnologists have taken the time to properly assign these various species proper common names (at least there is little literature on these names). Fall, the time of the harvest, provides the best opportunity to view these wondrous, misunderstood and harmless animals strolling in our woods. On your next woodland walk take time to address these misunderstandings with family and friends and let us all finally smite down the prejudicial urban legend that has relegated the harvestman to our nightmares.

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Craig Highfield Director of Chesapeake Forests Program, Maryland & DC Office

Craig is the Director of our Chesapeake Forests Program, where he manages a variety of projects that improve existing forests, create new ones, and educate residents and decision-makers about the benefits of forests in the Chesapeake watershed.

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