Whipscorpions, the Scariest Creatures That Can't Really Hurt You

Whipscorpion.
A whipscorpion resembles a true scorpion, but cannot sting. Getty Images/Aukid Phumsirichat/EyeEm

Whipscorpions look fiercely threatening, by some accounts. In truth, they may be the scariest looking creatures that can't actually do you much harm. They resemble scorpions, with enormous pincers and long, whip-like tails, but they lack venom glands entirely. Whipscorpions are also known as vinegaroons.

What Do Whipscorpions Look Like?

Whipscorpions do look similar to scorpions, but aren't true scorpions at all.

They are arachnids, related to both spiders and scorpions, but they belong to their own taxonomic order, the Uropygi. Whipscorpions share the same elongated and flattened body shape as scorpions, and possess oversized pincers for catching prey. But unlike a true scorpion, a whipscorpion does not sting, nor does it produce venom. Its long, slender tail is likely just a sensory structure, enabling it to detect vibrations or odors.

Although smaller than most true scorpions, whipscorpions can be impressively big, reaching a maximum body length of 8 cm. Add another 7 cm of tail to that, and you've got a big bug (though not an actual bug). Most whipscorpions inhabit the tropics. In the U.S., the largest species is Mastigoproctus giganteus, sometimes known as the mule killer.

How Are Whipscorpions Classified?

Kingdom – Animalia

Phylum – Arthropoda
Class – Arachnida
Order - Uropygi

What Do Whipscorpions Eat?

Whipscorpions are nocturnal hunters that feed on insects and other small animals.

The first pair of a whipscorpion's legs are modified into long feelers, used for locating prey. Once a potential meal is identified, the whipscorpion grabs the prey with its pincers, and crushes and tears its victim with powerful chelicerae.

The Life Cycle of Whipscorpions

For a creature with such a frightening appearance, the whipscorpion has a remarkably tender love life.

The male caresses his potential mate with his front legs before presenting her with his spermatophore. After fertilization occurs, the female retreats to her burrow, guarding her eggs as they develop in a mucous sac. When the young hatch, they climb onto their mother's back, holding fast with special suckers. Once they molt for the first time, they leave their mother and she dies.

Special Behaviors of Whipscorpions

While they can't sting, whipscorpions can and will defend themselves when threatened. Special glands at the base of its tail enable the whipscorpion to produce and spray a defensive fluid. Usually a combination of acetic acid and octanic acid, the whipscorpion's defensive spray gives off a distinctive vinegar-like smell. This unique odor is why the whipscorpion also goes by the nickname vinegaroon.  Be forewarned. If you encounter a vinegaroon, it can hit you with its defensive acid from a distance of a half meter or more.

Other Types of Whipscorpions

The order Uropygi isn't the only group of organisms known as whipscorpions. Among the arachnids are three other orders that share this common name, briefly described here.

Micro Whipscorpions (Order Palpigradi)

These tiny arachnids live in caves and under rocks, and we don't yet know much about their natural history.

Micro whipscorpions are pale in color, and their tails are covered with setae that function as sensory organs. Scientists believe micro whipscorpions prey on other micro arthropods, or perhaps on their eggs. About 80 species are described worldwide, although many more likely exist, still undiscovered.

Shorttailed Whipscorpions (Order Schizomida)

The shorttailed whipscorpions  are small arachnids, measuring less than 1 cm long. Their tails are (predictably) short. In males, the tail is knobbed so the mating female can hold onto it during mating. Shorttailed whipscorpions often have modified hind legs for jumping, and look superficially similar to grasshoppers in that regard. They prey on other small arthropods, hunting at night, despite poor eyesight. Like their larger cousins, shorttailed whipscorpions spray acid in defense, but lack venom glands.

Tailless Whipscorpions (Order Amblypygi)

Tailless whipscorpions are just that, and the name of their order, Amblypygi, literally means "blunt rump." The largest specimens reach 5.5 cm in length, and look somewhat similar to the larger vinegaroons. Tailless whipscorpions have strikingly long legs and spiny pedipalps, and they can run sideways at startling speeds. These features make them the stuff of nightmares to the easily spooked among us, but like the other whipscorpion groups, tailless whipscorpions are benign. That is, unless you're a smallish arthropod, in which case you may find yourself impaled and crushed to death by the tailless whipscorpion's powerful pedipalps.

 

Sources:

  • Bugs Rule! An Introduction to the World of Insects, by Whitney Cranshaw and Richard Redak
  • Borror and DeLong's Introduction to the Study of Insects, 7th edition, by Charles A. Triplehorn and Norman F. Johnson
  • "Species Mastigoproctus giganteus - Giant Vinegaroon," Bugguide.net. Accessed online March 10, 2017.
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Hadley, Debbie. "Whipscorpions, the Scariest Creatures That Can't Really Hurt You." ThoughtCo, Mar. 21, 2017, thoughtco.com/whipscorpion-profile-4134243. Hadley, Debbie. (2017, March 21). Whipscorpions, the Scariest Creatures That Can't Really Hurt You. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/whipscorpion-profile-4134243 Hadley, Debbie. "Whipscorpions, the Scariest Creatures That Can't Really Hurt You." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/whipscorpion-profile-4134243 (accessed November 20, 2017).