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Ancient arachnids: Daddy long legs had ‘largest male genitalia,’ 2 extra eyes

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Ancient arachnids, including daddy long legs, had extra eyes, and, as one arachnid fossil shows, were ‘impressively endowed in the genitalia department." The discovery of an ancient arachnid fossil, also known as the ancestors of harvestmen, is stunning scientists because it is rewriting the evolution of the creatures that most everyone knows as daddy longlegs. The extra eyes on the ancient creepy crawler were discovered by paleontologists from the United States and United Kingdom who “used X-ray imaging techniques to reveal features of the unusually well-preserved fossil like never before,” reports Sci-News on April 11.

Harvestmen, which are found on every continent except in Antarctica, are a group of arachnids. Arachnids include spiders and daddy long legs (also written as daddy longlegs). However, unlike spiders, daddy long legs belong to the group of Opiliones.

“Opilionids go by many names: daddy longlegs, harvestmen, shepherd spiders, and harvest spiders. These eight-legged arachnids are commonly misidentified as spiders, but they actually belong to their own, separate group – the order Opiliones,” explains About.com Insects. Daddy longlegs look very similar to spiders, but their bodies are round or oval in shape. Their cephalothorax and abdomen are joined together. In contrast, spiders have a visible “waist.” Daddy longlegs have stink glands, but you have to get close to smell them.

Even though arachnids are very common, they have a sparse fossil record since their exoskeletons did not preserve well during the past 400 million years. Because of the lack of evolutionary information, the creatures have been subject to some urban legends.

One of those legends is that daddy longlegs have the world's most powerful venom and that it is the most poisonous animal in the world. The only reason why the spider does not kill humans is attributed to its far too short fans or too round of a mouth than to cause any real threat to humans. The legend, which is so widespread that many people, including some teachers and TV documentary producers believe it, originated likely in the fact that daddy longlegs can kill and eat other spiders – including Redback Spiders – whose venom can be fatal to humans.

What is not an urban legend is that “daddy” does not only have “long legs,” but that he is also well endowed in other areas. In her book, The Earwig's Tail: A Modern Bestiary of Multi-legged Legends, May R. Berenbaum compares the creature’s alleged venom to a much more interesting aspect.

“Although I failed to turn up deadly daddy longleg venom in my Internet search, I stumbled across another distinctive feature of daddy longlegs that had escaped my notice up to that point in time. Evidently, although his mouthparts are popularly thought to be tiny, the male daddy longlegs in reality is much more impressively endowed in the genitalia department.”

Berenbaum is referring to a 2003 paper published in the journal “Nature” titled “Preserved organs of Devonian harvestmen.” The paper described finding a 400-million-year-old fossil harvestman in Scotland. The information was also published in an article online by National Geographic and concluded with a quotation from Paul Selden, president of the International Society of Arachnology. “These type of harvestmen ‘have relatively large genitalia, compared to their body size,’ said Selden – the fossil male has a penis two-thirds the length of his body. ‘I suppose it is to get past those long legs,’ said Selden.”

The ancient arachnids or daddy long legs fossil that showed two extra eyes is a 305-million-year-old arachnid fossil found in eastern France. In addition to two median lateral eyes, scientists also found two eyes near the center of the body. Russell Garwood, the lead author of the study and a paleontologist at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom, said in a statement that the Hastocularis argus fossil findings “represent a significant leap in our understanding of the evolution of this group” -- one can only agree.

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