Field of Science

Harvestmen and their Hairy Pedipalps

A selection of harvestmen, showing a variety of pedipalpal morphologies, from Wolff et al. (in press). The upper two are Laniatores with spiny pedipalps; the lower two are Palpatores with leg-like pedipalps.

Wolff, J. O., A. L. Schönhofer, J. Martens, H. Wijnhoven, C. K. Taylor & S. N. Gorb (in press) The evolution of pedipalps and glandular hairs as predatory devices in harvestmen (Arachnida, Opiliones). Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society.

I'm happy to say that a new paper on which I am an author has just been made available. It's been a while (long-term unemployment has not profited my publication record, I must admit), but there are a few things still bubbling below the surface. This last entry is a study of the evolution of harvestmen's pedipalps, the more-or-less leg-like appendages on either side of the mouth that they use for collecting, capturing and manipulating food, and particularly the sticky hairs that many harvestmen have on them. My part in this publication was fairly minimal: I provided specimens and data on Neopilionidae, and assisted with the English-language composition. Full credit goes to my co-authors, particularly our lead author Jonas Wolff who drove it all.

I've learnt some interesting things myself working on this paper. When I first started researching harvestmen, most of the sources I read described them as scavengers, content to get by on decaying remains that they chanced upon in their wanderings. For some harvestman species, that is indeed their chosen diet. But some other species are not content with mere leavings, preferring their meat fresh and wriggling. These species are active predators, using their pedipalps to seize springtails and other small invertebrates. As a result of their use for this and other activities, harvestmen pedipalps show a wide range of shapes and sizes: some simple and presumably multi-purpose, others strikingly modified. Many species (particularly within the Laniatores, or 'short-legged' harvestmen) carry long spines on the pedipalps, and one might presume these to be the more blood-thirsty harvestmen. But, as reported by Wolff et al., there are many species no less active in their hunting (if not even more so) that not only have their pedipalps unadorned with spines but have even lost or reduced the claws that usually tip the pedipalps. What is going on here?

The answer lies in these species' possession of an alternative to spines: glandular setae. These are little hairs attached to a gland secreting a sticky glue that sits in a globule on a cluster of micro-hairs at the end of the seta, and are found in various species of the Palpatores ('long-legged' harvestmen). In some species the micro-hairs may be on one side, like a tooth- or a boot-brush; in others they may form a ring around the end. Using glue to capture prey can be even more effective than using spines or claws: springtails and such are often covered with scales or other loose structures that can slide off when the animal is seized, allowing the prey to escape and leaving the would-be predator with a handful of dust. Attacking the prey with multiple points of sticky glue, however, increases the chance of holding onto it, as the glue works around the scales and adheres to the body.

Two harvestmen showing convergent 'tentacle' pedipalps, the dyspnoan Mitostoma chrysomelas on the left and the ballarrine Ballarra longipalpis on the right, from Wolff et al. (in press).

Most harvestmen have not gone the whole hog for glandular setae; there is presumably scope for compromise with the use of the pedipalps for other purposes such as mating (the genital opening for harvestmen is around the mid-point of the underside of the body, so harvestmen mate 'face-to-face' and may use the pedipalps to hold onto each other). Many Palpatores possess a smattering of glandular setae at certain points on the inner side of the pedipalps only, and otherwise have a fairly underived leg-like pedipalp with a well-developed claw. One particularly interesting example that I hadn't heard of before was the Asian species Metagagrella minax, which possesses glandular setae as a juvenile but progressively loses them as it matures. Nevertheless, there are two groups, the Dyspnoi and Ballarrinae, that possess what Wolff et al. dub the 'tentacle' form of pedipalp: the pedipalps are elongate with glandular setae along the entire length and lack the claw entirely. The Dyspnoi is a purely Northern Hemisphere lineage, whereas the Ballarrinae are restricted to the Southern Hemisphere. The two groups sit nested on opposite sides of the primary divide within Palpatores, so there is no question that the 'tentacle' pedipalp has evolved independently in the two groups (which is also reflected by differences in each in the relative proportions of the segments making up the pedipalp). However, there is a bit of a question about whether the 'tentacle' has appeared even more often: Wolff et al. assume a single origin of the Ballarrinae but this has recently been cast into doubt. This is a question that interests me directly because of something else I've currently got on the boil... but that's a topic for another day.


  1. Has anyone analysed the glue? The parallel to more famous arachnid glue-users is intriguing.

  2. Sorry, Pat, I've just realised that I forgot to answer your comment. As far as I know, no-one's yet established the chemical composition of Palpatores glue, though there has been some work on its tensile properties. Part of the problem is that the individual droplets are so tiny, obtaining a sample for analysis is a challenge in itself.


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