Field of Science

The Running of the Crabs

There are many varieties of spider in the world that, while not necessarily uncommon, tend to be little known to the general public owing to their cryptic and retiring nature. As an example, meet the genus Philodromus.

Philodromus cespitum, copyright R. Altenkamp.

Philodromus is the largest genus recognised in the family Philodromidae, commonly referred to as the running crab spiders or small huntsman spiders. About 250 species have been assigned to this genus from various parts of the world (Muster 2009), mostly in the Holarctic region. Like the huntsman spiders of the Sparassidae and the crab spiders of the Thomisidae, philodromids are an example of what old publications often referred to as 'laterigrade' spiders, in which the legs are arranged to extend sideways from the body more than forwards and backwards. They have eight eyes arranged in two recurved rows of four. Philodromids differ from crab spiders in having scopulae (clusters of hairs that can look a bit like little booties) on the leg tarsi, and having secondary eyes that lack a tapetum (reflective layer). They differ from huntsmen in that the junction between the tarsi and metatarsi is restricted to movement in a single plane, rather than the tarsus being able to move freely (Jocqué & Dippenaar-Schoeman 2007). Philodromids do not build a web to capture prey but instead seize prey directly.

The distinction between Philodromus and other genera in the family has historically been imprecise (Muster 2009) which goes some way to explaining the large number of species it has encompassed. In general, though, the eye rows of Philodromus are relatively weakly recurved, and its body form is less slender than that of the genera Tibellus and Thanatus. These may well be primitive features for the family, and a phylogenetic analysis of philodromids by Muster (2009) indicated that at least one group of species historically included in Philodromus (the P. histrio group) may be more closely related to the slender-bodied genera. The great French arachnologist Eugene Simon recognised several species groups in Philodromus, distinguished by features such as eye arrangement and leg spination, but recent authors feel that the status of these groups requires further investigation before we could consider treat?ing them as distinct genera.

Philodromus dispar, copyright Judy Gallagher.

Most species of Philodromus live on vegetation, flattening themselves against stems and foliage to avoid detection. As with other laterigrade spiders, the arrangement of their legs allows for rapid sideways movement, perfect for avoiding predators or turning up where prey do not expect them. At least one species group found in the Mediterranean region (including P. pulchellus and its relatives) differs in being ground-living, with a predilection for salt flats (Muster et al. 2007). Bites to humans from Philodromus appear to be vanishingly rare: a report on such a bite by Coetzee et al. (2017) appears to be the first record of one (the bite was painful, causing swelling and some ulceration, but without long-term effects following treatment). Philodromus species are much more likely to have a net positive value to humans, as they may act as control agents for insect pests among crops and orchards.


Coetzee, M., A. Dippenaar, J. Frean & R. H. Hunt. 2017. First report of clinical presentation of a bite by a running spider, Philodromus sp. (Araneae: Philodromidae), with recommendations for spider bite management. South African Medical Journal 107 (7): 576–577.

Jocqué, R., & A. S. Dippenaar-Schoeman. 2007. Spider Families of the World. Royal Museum for Central Africa: Tervuren (Belgium).

Muster, C. 2009. Phylogenetic relationships within Philodromidae, with a taxonomic revision of Philodromus subgenus Artanes in the western Palearctic (Arachnida: Araneae). Invertebrate Systematics 23: 135–169.

Muster, C., R. Bosmans & K. Thaler. 2007. The Philodromus pulchellus-group in the Mediterranean: taxonomic revision, phylogenetic analysis and biogeography (Araneae: Philodromidae). Invertebrate Systematics 21: 39–72.

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