Mucus-oozing worms are taking on spike-wielding arachnids in Brazil

The hidden battle beneath the Amazon’s trees: Researchers reveal mucus-oozing worms are taking on spike-wielding arachnids

  • In a new study, researchers observed fights between flatworms and harvestmen
  • Flatworms used a quick strike to take down prey, before covering them in mucus
  • The harvestmen used chemical secretions and spikes on their legs to fight back

In a battle between a flatworm and a harvestman, it might seem the arachnid would come out as the obvious winner.

But, it turns out the mucus-slinging sticky worms can really put up a fight.

In the forests of Brazil, where fights between the two species are a common occurrence, it’s the worms that are the aggressors, making the armored harvestmen their prey.

A new study on the interaction between the two has uncovered the remarkable tactics the worms use to subdue their prey – and the grisly ways in which harvestmen fight back.

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In a battle between a flatworm and a harvestman, it might seem the arachnid would come out as the obvious winner. But, it turns out the mucus-slinging sticky worms can really put up a fight. Researchers observed the interactions of 32 pairs of harvestmen and flatworms

In the study published in the Journal of Zoology, researchers pitted hungry flatworms against harvestmen in a small arena.

The team observed the interactions between 32 pairs of harvestmen and flatworms, which were each introduced on opposite ends of the arena and left to their own devices. 

And before long, the battle was on.

According to the team, 22 of the 32 flatworms attacked the harvestmen within five minutes, using a ‘fast strike with their sticky head’ to take down the arachnid by disabling a leg.

Then, they let the mucus flow.

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‘Throughout the process the flatworm released mucus onto the harvestman,’ the authors wrote, ‘gluing its legs with each other and the body to the arena, hampering harvestmen’s movement.’

The worms then approached and wrangled the harvestman, effectively covering their prey in a layer of mucus.

This means that even if the harvestmen were able to get away (and only 5 were), they’d eventually be immobilized by the sticky substance.

The flatworms even picked apart the bodies of their catch, removing the mouthparts and in one case, even removing a set of legs

A new study on the interaction between the two has uncovered the remarkable tactics the worms use to subdue their prey – and the grisly ways in which harvestmen fight back.

The flatworms then picked apart the bodies of their catch, removing the mouthparts and in one case, even removing a set of legs.

Some were then seen to devour the contents of the harvestmen’s bodies.

In the interactions observed however, the harvestmen did not give up without a good fight.

HOW DO HARVESTMEN DEFEND THEMSELVES? 

As reported in a paper published on Scientific Reports, entomologists from the University of Auckland observed that males of the species come in three kinds.

Entomologists from the University of Auckland observed that males of the Pantopsalis cheliferoides species come in three kinds:

Short slender: These tiny males have no natural ‘weapons’ and are better at running and hiding

Long slender: These males have long, lean jaws that are used like ‘swords’, or ‘whips’. The males wave these ‘weapons’ frantically in the hope they will hit their competitor.

Short broad: Short broad wielders are calmer but more powerful, using their sturdy ‘daggers’ to ‘punch or stab at their opponent.’

‘When attacked, 15/22 harvestmen pinched the predator with their sharp spines on legs IV,’ the researchers wrote.

‘Two of these harvestmen managed to escape from the predator, cutting the body of the flatworm in two pieces.’

The harvestmen are also equipped with chemical defenses, the researchers note – and all that fought back released their defensive secretions upon making contact.

‘We have shown that a terrestrial flatworm can subdue a well defended armored harvestman,’ the authors conclude.

‘To do so, the flatworm uses a sticky mucus, which is costly the harvestmen, even when they escape the attack, because it hinders locomotion.

‘Harvestmen fight back with mechanical and chemical means, which both effectively repel the predator.’

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