The Wandering Stilt Walker
Picture from: https://www.texasstandard.org/stories/harvestmen-the-spiders-that-arent-actually-spiders/
Picture from: https://www.earthlife.net/chelicerata/opiliones.html
Picture from: https://bugguide.net/node/view/293954
Late in the afternoon, nestled in the node of a small leafy plant, the first of many harvestmen eggs begin to hatch. Only centimeters large, the young harvestmen crawl from the safety of their nook and begin their first walk across the forest floor. Destined to roam through the leaf litter for the rest of their short lives, the hunt for food must soon begin. One harvestman’s journey begins and ends here, as one of its siblings makes them their first meal. Another scrambles away across the dirt, getting a feel for her impressive stilts. She struts the forest floor, climbing over sticks and rocks, already in search for her first meal. Her brown and grey back act as camouflage, letting her blend in to the dark patchy floor and hide from predators above as she herself begins to hunt. A grasshopper flies overhead, moving too fast for the young harvestmen to catch. Close by, a slug sneaks along the side of a fallen tree, looking too big for the harvestman’s first meal. Hanging overhead, a cluster of mites cling to the underside of a small leaf. A perfect first meal for this hatchling. The harvestman dances up the stem of the newly leafing plant and snatches a mite with its chelicerae and pedipalps. Holding her prey, she tears it apart and devours the pieces.
Over the next ten days, she will eat until her body has outgrown her exoskeleton. Then she will shimmy out of her hard body casing, slide her long legs through, and stand in a fresh set of skin. With her first molt completed, she is left more vulnerable than ever. A little lighter in color and newly soft bodied, she continues her nomadic wandering, this time in search of water. The sun will be coming up soon and dehydration threatens her life. Luckily, the morning has brought a fresh blanket of dew to the forest floor. The harvestman relishes in the water droplets that hug nearby hanging leaves, saving herself from the clutches of thirst.
Unfortunately, this is not the only thing this harvestman should fear today. Birds dive overhead, coming down to the leaf litter for their first morning meal. The harvestman’s legs tingle with the sensation of nearby predators. Instinct causes her to bob viciously on her stilts as a feathered predator swoops down on top of her. Her wild gyrating has worked, for the bird has missed her body entirely. She escapes the clutches of danger today with her nifty trick and is able to venture out for a meal of her own, this time snacking on defenseless beetle larvae stuck to the underside of a flower petal.
The following day her showstopping trick is not as successful and nearly costs her everything. Unfortunately for this harvestman, another bird would like her for a snack. Even more unfortunately, this one has better aim. Her bobbing barely confuses the predator and she scarcely avoids getting gobbled up. Still this practiced foe grabs hold of one of her spindly stilts and holds it in its beak. Have no fear, she quickly reacts and is able to detach herself from the wiggling leg and make an uneven getaway. She leaves behind a clueless and hungry predator who unknowingly flies away with only a measly wriggling appendage. Scrambling across the uneven dirt, she hides in the safety of a rotting log, surviving another day with her tactful tricks and instincts. Places like this hollowed log provide her much needed shelter from predators and the heat of the morning sun.
Another week of scavenging for food and water brings her right back to another molt, this time with only seven legs to stand on. After another two months and three more successful molts, this harvestman has reached maturity in the early summer months. She is now almost six inches long with her full-grown body and legs. She has also acquired her very own pest, one she is unfortunately not able to eat as it stays just out of reach. An Erythraeidae mite, which have larvae that parasitize Opiliones and suck the fluid from their legs, has attached itself to her without her knowledge.
Even more worrisome, the heat of the summer has brought on more threats of dehydration, forcing the harvestman to stay close to a nearby stream. It’s constant flow of water could ensure she makes it through the searing heat of these next two months. However, she was not the only harvestman with this idea. Other harvestmen gather here too during the day and hide from the glaring sun. The number of males in her area is increasing and mating season is upon her.
One late afternoon, she ventures out in the coolness of dusk to meander the forest in search of a snack. Climbing the long stem of a cluster of flowers, she relaxes on the top to feast on some unlucky aphids. Just as soon as she settles, a male harvestman arrives. He is smaller than her but no less determined to win her over. She clearly approves of him, as almost immediately they begin to mate, meeting face to face for this cordial exchange. However, he is not the only suitor on this flower. Another male has joined the exchange and has come prepared to fight for the female’s attention. The two males grapple with each other over the female, using their jaws and going for the legs. The first male is able to hook the other’s leg with his mouth and hold on tight, forcing his opponent to detach and flee. Now, with the interloper defeated and hustling off on his remaining legs, the victorious suitor can return to the female and mate.
A few months after mating, when the temperature has died down for the Autumn months, the female utilizes her long ovipositors to deposit almost a hundred fertilized eggs into a crack in the bark of an ash tree. There they have a chance to survive the next few weeks until they hatch. However, the female does not stay to find out as she returns to the safety of the stream to drink before the sun rises.
The next day as she ventures out, she moves slower than before. During the night she unwillingly picked up some additional hitchhikers, more Erythraeidae mites, which blood sucking larvae are making her weaker. Her daily exploration is slow and labored with the addition of these parasites. She moves so slowly now that she does not have the energy to vibrate or flee when a toad spits his tongue her way. Instead she is snatched into the amphibian’s mouth and crunched to an end.