Oh Daddy!

The harmless, stilt-walking, autotomizing arachnid

Illustration by Robert Meganck

(From Virginia Living) Perhaps you’ve heard that the daddy longlegs is the world’s most poisonous spider, but that it can’t bite humans because its fangs are too small. Let’s clear up a few points on that: 1) The daddy longlegs has no fangs; 2) It’s not poisonous; 3) It’s not even a spider.

“That’s a complete myth,” says Victor Townsend, professor of biology at Virginia Wesleyan University. “They don’t have any poison glands. They don’t have fangs.” In fact, says Townsend, their most offensive defense is literally raising a stink. “If you handle one for a bit, you will start to notice this noxious scent.”

Townsend has handled plenty in his career, being a keen scholar of the daddy longlegs—or, as they are known more commonly worldwide, and among scientists, “harvestmen” (because just to confuse matters, the colloquial name “daddy longlegs” in some places is used instead to refer to the long-legged crane fly and in some other places to refer to a long-legged, house-dwelling, also-harmless actual spider, the longbodied cellar spider).

In taxonomy, daddy longlegs belong to the same class as spiders (arachnids), but an entirely different order known as “opiliones,” Townsend explains. “Opiliones” derives from the Latin word for shepherd, “opilio,” apparently in a nod to shepherds in a certain region of southern France who once used to go about on stilts (the better to keep vantage over their sheep, so the story goes).

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