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Meet the Kalahari Ferrari – and its delightfully named cousins

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Meet the Kalahari Ferrari – and its delightfully named cousins

Researchers hope documenting vernacular African names will help conserve the solifuge species

Senior science reporter
Despite their English names, solifuges are neither scorpions nor spiders.
WHAT'S IN A NAME? Despite their English names, solifuges are neither scorpions nor spiders.
Image: Igor Siwanowicz

You’d be forgiven for thinking a camel spider is a spider and a wind scorpion is a scorpion. But they’re not. They belong to a group called solifuges, and now some innovative researchers have looked to vernacular languages and local African myths and legends to find out how these strange creatures are named and “framed” in different African cultures.

This rich body of language and folklore can play a role in conserving the different species in this group, according to lead author Tharina Bird and co-researchers who hail from the University of Pretoria and the Botswana International University of Science and Technology.

According to the authors, whose work was recently published in African Entomology,  “SA is rich in solifuge diversity, which is also reflected in the rich and imaginative local vernacular names of this group. These names allude to myths associated with solifuges, to their characteristic behaviours, or to their unique and striking morphology.”

It was no mean feat: They translated 40 vernacular terms used for solifuges in 25  languages and dialects in Southern Africa (Botswana, Malawi, Namibia, SA, and Zimbabwe), plus seven names in five languages in East Africa.  

Their ability to run fast and change direction with ease is seen as possessing some supernatural power.

Recognising solifuges as a distinct group, referred to by its own set of vernacular names, “seems to be more common in rural, compared to urban areas. The conservation of indigenous names of animals might be inextricably linked to the conservation of these animals”.

The paper includes some fascinating names and where they come from.

Consider, for example, the word haarskeerder which means haircutter, to describe solifuges.

It comes from a belief that solifuges cut their way out of women’s hair when entangled and an as yet unsubstantiated claim that some solifuges cut the hair of sleeping people/animals to line their nests.

Consider also the name maletsatsi, which in Sesotho means “mother of the sun”, or selaalii used in Botswana to mean “something that just wanders around”.

According to the authors, an interesting myth in the Zulu culture is that solifuges can bring  luck. “Their ability to run fast and change direction with ease is seen as possessing some supernatural power. It is thus not unusual to see people jump over a solifuge asking for luck.

Bhora mkantsha ngicela inhlanhla” (Solifuge, can I have luck?) will be repeated as many times as the solifuge is visible, or while it is still in the vicinity,” say the authors.

Interestingly, bhora mkantsha means “boring into the bone marrow” and comes from the idea that solifuges can tear into human skin, bore into the bone, and live off bone marrow (based on observations of solifuges quickly burrowing into the sand).

The authors say that most indigenous names for solifuges in Southern Africa describe  their behaviour, in particular their fast, erratic, seemingly directionless movement  (dzwatshwatswa in Kalanga, and the similar dvatsvatsva in chiShona, and otjimbiryangauri in Otjiherero).

Some of the names also reference the effect that their way of movement can have (for example break up a gathering around the fire as seen in the Oshiwambo word Eyambaula-hungi or wake up the elderly from their sleep, as seen in the chiShona word Chimutsavakuru).

Perhaps most evocative of all is the use of the apt reference “Kalahari Ferrari”.

It seems to remain restricted to a relatively small geographic area. 

“This term, probably coined by Afrikaans-speaking Namibian farmers of the Kalahari, only recently gained popularity through social media, though locals in Namibia mentioned that they knew about this reference already by the late 1990s,” say the authors.

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