Insect or Spider or WHAT?

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Insect? Spider? Insect? Spider?

Summer, 2009.

We love our off grid acreage in Cochise County, Arizona. Where else could you find a spider or insect or WHATEVER IT IS that you’ve never even HEARD of before? Just five days ago, Pam and I spotted the wildest bit of wildlife we’d ever seen. It looked like a bit of fast moving dandelion fluff, sort of a mini-cotton ball with legs. The critter was fast. Traveling mostly over open, bare ground, it eventually moved into a clump of bunchgrass and, after a while, disappeared from view.

In the meantime, I’d been on my feet, out in front of the camp trailer, hollering for Pam to get the camera while I kept an eye on this alien from Planet Dandelion. She did get the camera to me in time. Not in time to catch the beastie in the open, but at least quickly enough to snap a few shots before it disappeared entirely.

Here are the few shots of that particular individual. If any reader knows what it is, please let me know! (And no, this is not a hoax put together with household lint and/or PhotoShop. I don’t even have PhotoShop.)

Note: We’re not sure just how many legs this thing has–there are indications of legs in the photos, we think, but the count remains in question. Eight would mean spider, obviously, and six would mean insect, but those long whitish “hairs” provide an amazing amount of camouflage. As for other aids to identification, it does look to have a narrow waist like spiders do, but then again, so do many insects.

Update: It turned out to be a so-called velvet ant, so the mystery is now solved and the photos are captioned. Details can be found at the bottom of the page.

Individual Number One

White velvet ant, Cochise County, Arizona.

White velvet ant, Cochise County, Arizona.

White velvet ant, Cochise County, Arizona.

White velvet ant, Cochise County, Arizona.

White velvet ant, Cochise County, Arizona.

White velvet ant, Cochise County, Arizona.

White velvet ant, Cochise County, Arizona.

White velvet ant, Cochise County, Arizona.

White velvet ant, Cochise County, Arizona.

White velvet ant, Cochise County, Arizona.

Critter Number Two

Time wounds all heels, as they say. Or something like that. I hadn’t thought about the Mutated Dandelion Fluff for a while, at least a couple of days due to having plenty on my plate, beginning with Pam’s doctor related problems. Late this afternoon, a second Creature From Planet Cotton Ball grabbed my attention by both ears once again.

Fortunately, this time around I had the camera in my pocket. I was just returning from a brief walk around a portion of our property. Suddenly, skittering about on one of the numerous patches of bare ground scattered throughout stands of mesquite and bunchgrass, a second little hairy white monster showed its stuff. Again, that little thing–maybe three quarters of an inch long at most, maybe no more than half an inch–was fast. The pictures of Individual #2 (shown below) are mostly blurrier than those of the first specimen. This is due to the extra turn of speed displayed by #2: Where #1 would pause for long seconds between short dashes of a foot or two at a time, today’s mini-monster sprinted from place to place almost nonstop.

What stops were made, such as one near the entrance to an anthill, suggested hunting behavior to the naked eye. No single stop lasted for more than a second or two, then off again to the races. It was a super challenge to find it in the viewfinder and ten times as hard to keep it there. Most of the shots were taken hastily in an effort to get something recorded. Even so, blurry or not, the photos were worth taking. For one thing, the legs show more clearly than they do on #1. Can’t see eight of ’em, possibly eliminating spiders from consideration…but I’m not sure I can count six, either, so is it an insect? Really?

You may ask why I’ve repeatedly called this thing a “monster”. There’s a reason: It broadcasts a sense of menace I feel strongly. Pam feels it as well. Although neither specimen has shown the slightest interest in being aggressive toward humans, I would definitely not want to meet up with one were it to be the size of, oh, say, a German Shepherd…let alone an African lion. It would not surprise us in the least to discover the thing was so venomous that a single contact with one of those long white hairs could kill a battalion of combat hardened soldiers.

Or maybe not. In any case, we do most sincerely hope our readers can help identify this Arizona Alien. (Or so I wrote in 2009, many months before we finally successfully identified the white velvet ant.)

Another white velvet ant, 300' farther south in Cochise County, Arizona.

Another white velvet ant, 300′ farther south in Cochise County, Arizona.

The velvet ant moves right along, checking out hole after hole.

The velvet ant moves right along, checking out hole after hole.

That's one fast moving velvet ant, but check out the next photo....

That’s one fast moving velvet ant, but check out the next photo….

Cochise County velvet ant?  No way--that thing's an alien predator from the mind of Stephen King!

Cochise County velvet ant? No way–that thing’s an alien predator from the mind of Stephen King!

Update, much later….

It took us months to figure it out, but we finally made the identification. These bits of “dandelion fluff” are called “velvet ants”–though they’re anything but true ants.

In fact, the fluffy, weird-but-innocent looking beastie is the female version of a parasitic wasp in the Mutillidae family. As Wikipedia puts it,

The Mutillidae are a family of more than 3,000 species of wasps (despite the names) whose wingless females resemble large, hairy ants. Their common name velvet ant refers to their dense pile of hair which most often is bright scarlet or orange, but may also be black, white, silver, or gold. Black and white specimens are sometimes known as panda ants due to their hair coloration resembling that of the Chinese giant panda. Their bright colours serve as aposematic signals. They are known for their extremely painful stings, hence the common name cow killer or cow ant….

These Mutillidae wasps hunt out “prey insects” underground before they lay their eggs. The larvae then chow down on the host bug from the inside out, eventually adopting the host’s exoskeleton as its own (or in addition to its own), resulting in one mighty powerful set of armor.

Only the females go fluffing around on the ground and down various holes, looking for trouble. The girls don’t fly, but the guy Mutillidae do. Fortunately, the males neither sting nor bite.

Curiously, neither Pam nor I have felt the sense of menace emanating from velvet ants we’ve observed in more recent years. In fact, a bit earlier this summer (2013), when my wife would be outside, hanging out in the sunshine for a few minutes at a time, the velvet ants (there are never many in any one area, and usually just one) seemed drawn to her. They’d wander over her way, not quite getting underfoot, not threatening, just enjoying her company.

Or so it seemed. Who knows? Stranger things have happened.

4 thoughts on “Insect or Spider or WHAT?

  1. Hello, I found your article to be of much help! I was hiking today and stumbled upon a moving dandelion looking fluff. I was so baffled…been on my mind all day and so glad to have found your website! Thanks lol

  2. You’re very welcome, and thanks for commenting. When I first wrote about these velvet ants (parasitic wasps), I was as baffled as you are. Now, though (a few years later), we’re used to seeing them around.

  3. 6/11/16-Patagonia, AZ
    It was fun reading about your experience with the white “velvet ants”. It sounded very much like my experience with one a couple of days ago. I chased the little wad of spiky fluff all around the yard as it moved so quickly that I had trouble keeping up with it to keep it in the view-finder of my camera. I took about 10 pictures, three of which turned out quite a bit better than the others. I would have almost sworn that I saw 8 legs, likely because to my thinking that anything that small that moved that quickly would almost have to be a spider. Almost.

  4. Thanks for commenting, Jon. It made me smile to read about your efforts to keep the “little wad of spiky fluff” in the view finder. That’s always a challenge with these peripatetic little characters!

    And I get the part about “almost” having to be a spider, too. Just this evening, I spotted a bug crawling on the wall outside of the house that looked very spider-like…but it was a fake. Six active legs, and the “other two legs” were hold-’em-steady antennae that mimicked a forward pair of legs really, really well. Not idea whatsoever about the species.

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