Field of Science

Long-legged Harvestmen of Southern Africa

New paper time!

Rhampsinitus conjunctidens, a new species of harvestmen from north-east South Africa, from Taylor (2017).

Taylor, C. K. 2017. Notes on Phalangiidae (Arachnida: Opiliones) of southern Africa with description of new species and comments on within-species variation. Zootaxa 4272 (2): 236–250.

When I first started research for my PhD thesis, *cough* years ago, I asked a number of museums if they could loan me their collections of monoscutid (now neopilionid) harvestmen. The species that I was interested in are found in Australia and New Zealand but when I opened a package of specimens sent to me from the California Academy of Sciences, I found a number of specimens from Africa in the mix. I immediately recognised what they were: not neopilionids, but representatives of another harvestment family, the Phalangiidae.

It seemed an easy enough error to make. Many species of southern African Phalangiidae resemble a lot of neopilionids in that the males have over-sized, elongate chelicerae. I referred to some of these species in the genus Rhampsinitus in an earlier post. To those not familiar with harvestmen diversity (which, let's face it, is the majority of people out there), the two groups can look very similar. True, the phalangiids are all distinctly much spikier than the neopilionids, but that doesn't seem that major a difference. To really see where they diverge from each other, you need to reach underneath the males' genital opercula and pull out their todgers.

Anywho, the specimens sat in storage for much longer than they should have, until I finally got around to looking them over in the latter part of last year. I then decided that it was worth writing them up into a short paper. Not only was there at least one new species among the specimens, they told me some very interesting things about variation within the species. Not only do Rhampsinitus species resemble Australasian neopilionids in their enlarged chelicerae, they resemble them in that individuals of a species vary in how enlarged the chelicerae are.

Major (left) and minor males of Rhampsinitus nubicolus, from Taylor (2013).

Now, I was not the first person to observe this point. Axel Schönhofer (2008) had already provided some detailed examples of variation in males of Rhampsinitus cf. leighi. I did, however, observe that the variation was even greater than Axel seemed to have recognised. Some of the least developed males of the species I was looking at had chelicerae that were pretty much no more developed than those of females. In some ways, the variation was even more remarkable than what I was familiar with in neopilionids. In most of the latter, major and minor males tend to be pretty similar to each other in features other than cheliceral development. In Rhampsinitus, we can see variation in almost all the features related to sexual dimorphism. In the species pictured immediately above, R. nubicolus, major males have massively long pedipalps as well as the long chelicerae; minor males have short, stubby pedipalps like those of a female. We can tell that they are the same species because they are found in the same location and have matching genitalia, but on the outside you would be hard pressed to pick them as such. Just to confuse matters even more, major males of two species may look very different to each other whereas minor males are externally almost identical. Without looking at the genitalia, it is all but impossible to identify which species a minor male belongs to.

As with the neopilionids, we can't yet say for sure what this variation means for the species' behaviour. In many other animal species with comparably varying males, large males will fight to protect and contain females while small males adopt a sneaking behaviour and try to spot females that are not being watched by large males. It seems quite possible that a similar thing is going on with Rhampsinitus. If you're a keen natural historian or behavioralist, there's something here that is crying to be looked into.


Schönhofer, A. L. 2008. On harvestmen from the Soutpansberg, South Africa, with description of a new species of Monomontia (Arachnida: Opiliones). African Invertebrates 49 (2): 109–126.


  1. Do we know of major/minor-ness is genetic, or based on how much they get to eat as larvae, or something?

    1. We don't, as yet. There is a research group in New Zealand looking at variation in the neopilionids; I don't know if they've identified any causative factors or not. Ray Forster did some rearing experiments with short-legged harvestmen back in the 1950s where he supposedly found that minor males matured faster than majors, but he never published details. Preliminary indications might suggest that this is not the case with long-legged harvestmen, anyway.

      In general, male polymorphisms are more often environmentally or developmentally induced, but genetically determined cases are known.

  2. Congrats on the publication :-)


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