Oh, to have long legs instead of the short stubby things that are my endowment.
Maybe that’s why I’m fascinated by granddaddy longlegs. As a kid I even let these seemingly harmless arachnids crawl up my arm. Those long, graceful legs represent travel engineering at its best.
Fast-forward to 2000 to imagine my adult horror when the internet was awash with declarations that granddaddy longlegs are “the most venomous spiders in the world but their fangs are too small and weak to break human skin.” Scary words for someone who used to play with them. Some claims go so far as to call them “the world’s most poisonous animal.” (FYI, venomous and poisonous are not the same.)
It didn’t take long for myth-busters to fill cyberspace with the real facts, although in the information overload we live in, misinformation never completely disappears. Thankfully for granddaddy longlegs admirers, science-oriented friends and media types came and continue to come to their defense.
Perhaps you know these long-legged creatures as daddy longlegs or harvestmen or cellar spiders, other popular names.
If you were one of those mean kids who ripped off one leg to watch the longlegs walk funny, it’s a little late to feel guilt that the legs don’t grow back. But a leg will twitch after detachment because it possesses something like a pacemaker. These and a lot of other cool facts are easy to find in the Dot-Com World. This one comes from livescience.com:
“...the term ‘daddy longlegs’ is commonly used to refer to two distinct types of creatures: opilionids arachnids with pill-shaped bodies and eight long legs that are actually not spiders, and pholcids, which have long legs and and thus resemble opilionids.”
Spider by any other name
Are they spiders? You can’t use the spider designation with opilionids, but they are arachnids and there are more than 6,000 species around the world that we might call longlegs. They do not have venom glands or anything resembling fangs to bite with.
But you can call a pholcid a spider but it is also obviously an arachnid. The UC-Riverside site reports there is no reference to any pholcid spider causing a detrimental reaction with a bite. Like many creatures, they have important roles, one of which is eating lots of small, pesky insects.
Tens of thousands of them
Combine the opilionids and pholcids and there are as many as 10,000 arachnid species we might call longlegs. It would take lots of study to sort through the types, so I won’t attempt to identify the longlegs in the photograph I took that inspired this Sunday missive.
I hadn’t been walking on my short stubby legs long when Hollywood released the 1955 musical comedy “Daddy Long Legs,” which starred the oh-so-long-legged dancer Fred Astaire in a story about love despite an age difference.
It is loosely based on a 1912 Jean Webster book about an orphan who has a mysterious wealthy benefactor she names Daddy-Long-Legs after she sees his legs in shadow.
How it came to be
So how did the granddaddy long legs venomous/poisonous myth come to be? Some scientist suggest it might be related to this arachnids’ habits of eating venomous spiders, the kind that can cause humans problems. In 2004 the Discovery Channel’s “Myth Buster” series tested the myth.
Show hosts Adam Savage and Jamie Lineman first talked about a study in which mice were injected with black widow spider venom and longlegs venom. The widow’s produced a much stronger reaction.
Adams then put his hand in a jar, deliberately agitated several granddaddy long legs and reported he did feel a bite. Apparently, it wasn’t competition to the “sting” of the Mississippi Coast fire ant.
Do I advocate deliberately letting a granddaddy long legs walk on you? No, despite my childhood lack of caution. But please, don’t panic and go “splat” because one unwittingly gives you an up close and personal view of those magnificent legs.
Kat Bergeron, a veteran feature writer specializing in Gulf Coast history and sense of place, is retired from the Sun Herald. She writes the Mississippi Coast Chronicles column as a freelance correspondent. Reach her at BergeronKat@gmail.com or at Southern Possum Tales, P.O. Box 33, Barboursville VA 22923.