Dr. Tim's Spineless Wonders

Did you hear the one about the huge camel spider? Well …

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2020
Camel Spider

A real camel spider. Much smaller than a dinner plate. And quiet. Not capable of screaming.

On several occasions photos of huge camel spiders, the size of a human’s calf, have exploded across the internet, accompanied by alarming stories describing how the spiders attacked and partially consumed a U.S. soldier stationed in Iraq. In each case the soldier reportedly was completely unaware of his plight until he awakened in the morning to find chunks of his flesh missing.

Although specific details of the story vary, they are almost always attached to the same photo and are reported by a friend of one of the actual soldiers involved:

This’ll give you a better idea of what our troops are dealing with. Warning: not for the squeamish! These things are huge!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! They run 25 mph, jump three feet, are a nocturnal spider, so only come out at night unless they are in shade. They are the size of dinner plates and when they bite you, you are injected with Novocain so you go numb instantly. You don’t even know you are bitten when you are sleeping, so you wake up with part of your leg or arm missing because it has been gnawing on it all night long. This is a perfect example of why you don’t want to go to the military. These are 2 of the biggest I’ve ever seen. With a vertical leap that would make a pro basketball player weep with envy (they have to be able to jump up on to a camel’s stomach, after all), they latch on and inject a local anesthesia so you can’t feel it feeding on you. They eat flesh, not just suck out your juices like a normal spider, and they scream bloody hell when they run.”

This story first went viral on the internet during the Gulf War in the early 1990s. It was recirculated in 2003 when the United States invaded Iraq, and became so prevalent as to elicit a formal disclaimer from the U.S. Department of Defense as well as one from the National Geographic News, titled Camel Spiders: Behind an E-Mail Sensation From Iraq, June 29, 2004.

Despite the story being debunked, various derivations are popping up even today. Origins (which friend of which soldier friend this actually happened to have never been determined), location (apparently the attacks now occur in Afghanistan as well as Iraq) and a few of the juicier spider facts have evolved, yet the general story line and moral remains: Large camel spiders purposely or inadvertently attack unlucky U.S. soldiers stationed in the Mideast.

Snopes.com, a self-certified, internet fact-checking resource, claims, “When misinformation obscures the truth and readers don’t know what to trust, Snopes.com’s fact-checking and original, investigative reporting lights the way to evidence-based and contextualized analysis.” In other words, people with doubts about the veracity of an internet story may go to Snopes.com to sort out what is true and what is myth or rumor.

In the case of the camel spider story, Snopes.com declares that the claims are all false. “The creatures shown in the photograph appear to be real camel spiders, but their closeness to the camera creates an illusion of exaggerated size, and thus are misleading. The story contains elements of truth but with enough non-truths for the story to be classified as a hoax. Camel spiders are so named because, like camels, they can be found in sandy desert regions. Although they aren’t technically spiders, they grow to be moderately large (about a 5″-6″ leg span), but nowhere near as large as dinner plates; they can move very quickly in comparison to other arthropods (a top speed of maybe 10 mph), but nothing close to 25 mph; they make no noise; and they capture prey without the use of either venom or anesthetic. Camel spiders rely on speed, stealth, and the (non-venomous) bite of powerful jaws to feed on small prey, including scorpions, crickets, pillbugs and, occasionally, lizards, mice or birds.”

So why does this story persist even though the facts have been disproven time after time by scientists, the government, the military and by independent authorities, such as National Geographic and Snopes.com?

To answer that question I depart from science and enter into a much more subjective area that I know nothing about yet is much more interesting … urban legends.

According to those who study such things, urban legends are a genre of folklore comprising stories widely circulated as true, having happened to a (rarely traceable) friend or family member, often containing outlandish, horrifying or humorous elements. Legends often concern mysterious, perilous or troubling events, and include a moralistic confirmation of prejudices or offer ways to make sense of societal anxieties.

According to my rudimentary research, it appears that to be considered an urban legend, a story must meet the following criteria.

  • Be a popular or entertaining story, worthy of repetition.
  • Be frequently forwarded or passed on in some manner.
  • Have at least some element of truth, even though that “truth” may simply be “alleged” by implication of other people, i.e., this actually happened to a friend of a friend, but is rarely verifiable to a particular person, place or event.
  • Contain outlandish facts.
  • Carry an implied moral message or story.

According to David Emery, a senior writer at Snopes.com, an urban legends truth or non-truth doesn’t affect its eligibility as an urban legend. Urban legends aren’t defined as false stories; they’re defined as stories alleged to be true in the absence of actual knowledge or evidence. As long as a story continues to be passed off as factual by folks who don’t really know the facts, it qualifies.

Why they are called “urban” legends is difficult if not impossible to defend. They may more accurately be considered “contemporary”’ legends because the stories don’t always affiliate with a town or a city, but they all are relatively current or contemporary.

Legends differ from myths. Myths are untruths stated as fact. I am the first to rectify the slightest myth about insects – and there are many: Butterflies and moths can’t fly if you rub the scales of their wings; chiggers burrow under skin and suck blood; ultrasonic devices keep pests out; ticks must be removed by rotating them clockwise; daddy long legs are deadly, but their jaws are too small to bite humans.

But when it comes to legends, I find myself a bit less rigid. Hey, I love a good story even if it has some factual problems. For example, it is obvious that many of the facts about camel spiders are blatantly untrue and that the photograph that accompanies this legend has been doctored – but the moral of the story IS true, interesting, and relative to our society today. That is … there are consequences when we send young men and women as soldiers to fight in foreign countries. Consequences that remain unknown and mysterious, and that go beyond the battlefield.

So, while myths are a menace to our society and should be rooted out, an urban legend about bigger-than-life camel spiders that speaks to a current societal concern is different. Much like the story of Little Red Riding Hood, though the facts of the story may not add up, a moral about avoiding others’ evil deceptions justifies its existence.

Why are people so willing to believe in urban legends? Wikipedia authors suggest that human beings are simply storytellers (and story believers) by nature. Perhaps we are hard-wired in some way to be susceptible to well-told, though fanciful, stories if they depict our own life experiences, concerns and fears. Humans have a tendency to interpret life in narrative terms, in a story-like fashion. We’re charmed by them for the same reasons we’re charmed by Hollywood movies and fairy tales.

Urban legends often depict horrific crimes, scams, contaminated foods, or other situations that could potentially affect us. Listeners might feel compelled to warn others. One of the characteristics of an urban legend is that it’s widely and persistently recirculated – often orally. Nowadays, urban legends often have life because of forwarded text messages or reposts on social media platforms.

Persistent urban legends must not only maintain a degree of plausibility, but they must be based on a societal issue, such as a distrust of police officers, the occult, medical professionals, scientists, foreigners, religion, the government or others in authority.

What will protect us from falling for urban legends? Interestingly, one protection is the internet itself. Snopes.com and others can help de-mystify the legend.

And, according to a friend of a guy I know, there is the ever-watchful Spineless Wonders column that instantly jumps on, seizes and chokes the life out of the slightest errant insect fact that any urban legend as much as attempts to promulgate.

So rest easy. Know that if not 100% true, these will be sniffed out and snuffed out by Dr. Tim.  At least, that is what somebody’s friend said on the internet.

Photo credit: Getty Images

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Author: Dr. Tim Gibb, gibb@purdue.edu
Editor: Charles Wineland, cwinelan@purdue.edu
Category: Entomology, Extension
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