x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Dunes alive with the creepiest of crawlers

Cannibal scorpions, a large, hairy eight-legged creature that is not a spider, a beetle that defends itself by emitting a foul smell and a ventriloquist bug are among the specimens that have been collected in a groundbreaking survey of insect life.

The conservationist Peter Roosenschoon displays a black-tipped scorpion.
The conservationist Peter Roosenschoon displays a black-tipped scorpion.

DUBAI // Cannibal scorpions, a large, hairy eight-legged creature that is not a spider, a beetle that defends itself by emitting a foul smell and a ventriloquist bug are among the specimens that have been collected in a groundbreaking survey of insect life.

They are among 212 species found so far at the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, and these insights into what lurks among the sand dunes of the UAE's deserts might give campers pause for thought.

"We've found four types of scorpion on the reserve - the black scorpion, the black-tipped scorpion, the thick-pincer scorpion and the Arabian death stalker," said Peter Roosenschoon, the conservation officer conducting the survey.

"These scorpions will not kill you, but you would need treatment if you were stung. You can get really ill, but you most likely will be seriously affected if you are allergic to something."

Mr Roosenschoon demonstrated the cannibal nature of the scorpions by holding up fragments of two pincers - all that remained of a death stalker devoured by a black scorpion half its size.

He uses a number of methods to collect specimens, including pitfall traps, where insects tumble into plastic buckets buried in the sand. But there are occupational hazards, as occasionally venomous snakes drop in.

Light traps are used to attract moths while other specimens are caught by hand or with a net. A large camel spider was found after it toppled into one of the swimming pools at the luxury Al Maha resort, which forms part of the reserve.

Although the sand-coloured camel spider has eight legs it is not actually a spider at all - it is a member of a related class of arachnids known as solifugae.

"The reason why it is not a spider is it has two pedipalps (outgrowths or appendages) in the front," Mr Mr Roosenschoon said. "These are sensory organs and spiders do not have large ones like these. Also solifugae don't have spinnerets, so they don't give you silk."

The churchyard beetle is best avoided, as it emits a skunk-like smell if it feels threatened.

"My favourite insect by far is the cicada," said Mr Roosenschoon. "The cicada uses the tymbal muscle method, very similar to a stereo speaker, to produce sound. There's a cover, the tymbal, with a muscle attached to it. When the muscle vibrates, the cover creates a sound.

"The sound is cast away to the other side of the tree as a defence, that is why you will never actually know where the cicada is. They are like ventriloquists."

Mr Roosenschoon's study covers arthropods, the group of animals that includes insects and spiders. He completed the first part of his research, a baseline survey of the species at the reserve, during the winter, and plans to start the second stage next month.

Most insect studies in the UAE have been confined to identifying species, but Mr Roosenschoon's work is designed to provide new types of data.

"I am investigating the distribution, abundance and range of the species in the reserve," he said. "The idea is to see which habitats are more suitable for which insects.

"We will do a vegetation survey and then overlay the beetle survey so we can see what sort of habitats are preferred by the species."

Much of the wildlife research carried out in the UAE focuses on large, eye-catching creatures such as the Arabian oryx and spectacular marine life such as sharks and turtles. The Sharjah-based wildlife enthusiast Ajmal Hasan, who makes regular trips into the desert to photograph insects and other animals, welcomed the attention that is now being paid to insects and spiders.

"I'm very pleased because these small creatures are really not highlighted as much as they should be," he said. "This is an area that I think needs to be looked at in more detail because raising awareness of these creatures is very important."

Mr Roosenschoon's insects are pinned and stored in wooden cases, each of which is topped with a sheet of glass that fits tightly. But the lids lack the finger holes that would normally make them easier to remove.

There is a very good reason for this: if there were holes in the glass, carpet beetles or other insects would crawl into the cases and devour the specimens.

csimpson@thenational.ae