Field of Science

The Eater of Light

The Waitomo harvestman Forsteropsalis photophaga, from Taylor & Probert (2014).

A little less than a year ago, I was contacted by a student at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, asking me about some harvestmen that she'd been trying to identify me from the Waitomo cave system. This incited a certain degree of excitement on my part, because I was not entirely unfamiliar with Waitomo's harvestmen. I had first seen specimens from there while doing my MSc back in 2001 or 2002, and had realised then that they represented an undescribed species. However, for various reasons, I had not yet published a description of the species in question. So when Anna contacted me, I decided it was time to bump the Waitomo harvestmen up the to-do list, and I replied to her asking if she would be interested in collaborating on a paper on the Waitomo harvestmen. She agreed, and the resulting paper came out just last week: C. K. Taylor & A. Probert, "Two new species of harvestmen (Opiliones, Eupnoi, Neopilionidae) from Waitomo, New Zealand".

Image of Waitomo cave, from here.

The Waitomo caves may be the world's only tourist attraction centred around an infestation of flies. The caves are home to an abundant population of glow-worms, larvae of the fungus gnat Arachnocampa luminosa. These fly larvae live on the roof of the cave, held in place by a silken hammock, and produce spots of brilliant blue light. It is the spectacle of these lights that draw the tourists, but for the glow-worms they serve a different purpose: the lights attract insects flying in the cave. In flying towards the light, insects become entangled in sticky threads that each glow-worm suspends below its hammock, providing the glow-worm with food. You can see a video of the process here, taken from the BBC's Planet Earth series.

But the glow-worms are not without predators of their own. With their long slender legs, harvestmen are able to carefully tip-toe between the sticky threads and pluck out the glow-worms, as from a luminous buffet (they also eat them at the pupal and adult stages). The harvestmen of Waitomo were studied by Myer-Rochow & Liddle (1988), who identified two species. One, a 'short-legged harvestman' Hendea myersi cavernicola (which actually has decidedly long legs, natch), is endemic to the cave system and was identified by Meyer-Rochow and Liddle as a strict troglobite (i.e. it spends its entire life within the cave). It has a number of features commonly associated with cave-dwelling, such as pale coloration and lengthened legs. It does differ from most troglobites in that it is not blind: while its eyesight is dim, it does retain enough to find its glowing prey.

Meyer-Rochow and Liddle also identified a 'long-legged harvestman' in the Waitomo caves, which they referred to as 'Megalopsalis tumida'. This name refers to a species first described from Wellington, quite some distance to the south, that now goes by the name of Forsteropsalis fabulosa (and has made an earlier appearance at this site, where it was the subject of this post). As it turns out, I identified two species of Forsteropsalis in material from the caves, neither of which was F. fabulosa. I can't be certain which was the species being looked at by Meyer-Rochow and Liddle. For various reasons, I suspect that they may have been looking at examples of both, but, as I've never been able to locate any vouchers for their study, I can't really say (remember, kids, vouchers are important).

Forsteropsalis bona, from Taylor & Probert (2014).

One of these species is indeed very similar to Forsteropsalis fabulosa, and has accordingly been labelled Forsteropsalis bona. Indeed, the two species are similar enough that I can now see that the photograph I used in my earlier post to illustrate F. fabulosa in fact shows an individual of F. bona. The primary difference between the two is in their pedipalps: in F. fabulosa, the patella of the pedipalp has a distinct finger-like process that is much reduced in F. bona. Forsteropsalis bona is not a strict troglobite: specimens have been collected at Waitomo both inside and outside the cave entrance. Instead, it is what is called a troglophile: individuals of F. bona probably use the caves as a cool, damp place to hang out during the day, emerging to forage outside the cave at night. This is the same pattern of behaviour found in New Zealand's cave wetas.

The second species is the beauty pictured at the top of this post. Its species name, photophaga, means 'eater of light', referring of course to its probable predation on glow-worms. This is a stunning animal: the enormous chelicerae typical of New Zealand Neopilionidae are rendered even more eye-catching by the presence of rows of longer spines (offhand, we don't yet know what the females of either of the Waitomo species look like, but they probably resemble other Forsteropsalis females in lacking the long chelicerae of the males). Whether Forsteropsalis photophaga is a troglobite or a troglophile is a bit more uncertain. I'm not aware of it having ever been collected outside the caves, but it doesn't seem to have the obvious modifications for cave-dwelling of Hendea myersi cavernicola (though when t comes to assessing elongated limbs in what is already a long-legged harvestman... how are you going to tell?). At present, I'm guessing troglophile rather than troglobite, but future studies may easily prove me wrong.

Forsteropsalis photophaga is also an intriguing animal from a taxonomic viewpoint. In the past, the two New Zealand harvestman genera Pantopsalis and Forsteropsalis have been pretty easy to distinguish, but F. photophaga has some features that are more reminiscent of Pantopsalis than of Forsteropsalis. Recently, other things have been brought to my attention that suggest that, while Pantopsalis as we currently know it still seems fairly robust, Forsteropsalis is beginning to look decidedly fuzzy around the edges. The relationship between these two genera (if, indeed, they should still be recognised as two separate genera) has still not been resolutely ironed out.


Meyer-Rochow, V. B., & A. R. Liddle. 1988. Structure and function of the eyes of two species of opilionid from New Zealand glow-worm caves (Megalopsalis tumida: Palpatores, and Hendea myersi cavernicola: Laniatores). Proceedings of the Royal Society of London Series B (Biological Sciences) 233: 293–319.


  1. Fun but you missed the chance to use "lucifericida".

  2. No, wrong language. The genus name comes from Greek, so I'd prefer to use a Greek species name as well (I made an exception for 'bona').

  3. I had assumed they were in Latin, has the Polari language been used before in taxonomy?

  4. What do you mean, Polari? ;-)

    A lot of Polari is ultimately derived from Latin, of course, as a result of its closer derivation from Romany. But when I've already been presented with a species called 'fabulosa', what do you expect me to do?


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