Changing Planet

Don’t Call Them Spiders: A Closer Look at Tiny Harvestmen

Some of the cyphos collected from Bukidnon Province on Mindanao in July 2014. The one at the top is male, and the others are female. (Photo by Ronald Clouse)

What’s cuter than a basket of puppies, you ask? Easy: a dish full of cyphos!

Collected by us last July, specimens of these strange relatives of ticks and daddy longlegs have found their way from Bukidnon Province on the Philippine island of Mindanao to North Carolina via the National Museum of the Philippines and Harvard University. Here at UNC Charlotte, I was able to view them for the first time under a powerful microscope. What a great sight.

These are the first ever views of adult female cyphos from the Philippines, but I really wanted to see the males and whether they had certain telling features. Male cyphos in Southeast Asia often have a single little pore at their posterior end, especially if they come from Borneo. If Mindanao was once connected to Borneo, then we would expect the male cyphos in Mindanao to have this little pore. Indeed, they do, and you can see it as a tiny white dot on the hind end of the underside photo of the male here.

The microscope at UNC Charlotte where the specimens are photographed for scientific description and some close-up views of a male. (Photos by Ronald Clouse)
The microscope at UNC Charlotte where the specimens are photographed for scientific description and some close-up views of a male. (Photos by Ronald Clouse)

What this pore is used for is unknown. It’s the opening to some sort of gland that produces chemicals useful only to males, and microscopic grooves and smooth patches near the pore imply that males spread these chemicals around. In some lineages of Southeast Asian cyphos the pore has been retained no matter how small or large a species has evolved to be, but in two other lineages the pore has been completely lost. Perhaps cyphos have exciting sex lives beneath the leaf litter, away from prying eyes, and the question is ripe for a clever animal behaviorist to investigate.

The only other adult male specimen seen in the Philippines, the one collected from Palawan Island 55 years ago, does not have this pore and doesn’t look much like the ones from Mindanao. The Palawan species is much larger and resembles certain Bornean cyphos that live in and around caves. It won’t be quick or easy to piece together the histories of these islands and their faunas, but seeing these animals, certain hypotheses come to mind.

Scenes from the collecting trip to Mt. Pinamantawan on Mindanao in December, 2014 (Photos by Alma Mohagan), and a close-up view of a local Eupnoi daddy-long-legs (Photo by Harold Armecin).
Scenes from the collecting trip to Mount Pinamantawan on Mindanao in December 2014 (photos by Alma Mohagan), and a close-up view of a local Eupnoi daddy longlegs (photo by Harold Armecin).

Meanwhile, far away from winter in North Carolina, Alma, Dave, and Dale Joy Mohagan are on Mindanao continuing to take students into the field to learn how to find daddy longlegs and other leaf-litter inhabitants. In early December they went to Mount Pinamantawan with students from a nearby school that serves seven groups of indigenous people: Tboli (from Lake Sebu), Higaonon (from Surigao), Bilaan (Mount Matutum), Manobo (Bukidnon), Talaandig (Bukidnon), Umayom-om (Davao), and Matigsalog (Davao). They found juvenile cyphos, which will be useful for DNA analyses and piecing together the history of these animals in the region.

Later in December, with the logistic support of Mr. Bill Claveria, Dr. Regelio Aguadera, and the Barangay Capt. of Acmonan, the Mohagans took a Ph.D. student and four high school students over 700 meters up Mount Matutum in South Cotabato. They braved the hard rain of Typhoon Seniang and steep terrain to collect a wide variety of daddy longlegs. They didn’t find any cyphos, but they did get to use their new, locally made leaf-litter sifters.

The collecting trip to Mt. Matutum in Bukidnon Province, Mindanao, in late December, 2014, led by Alma Mohagan (blue shirt, second from left in group photo). (Photos by Alma Mohagan)
The collecting trip to Mount Matutum in Bukidnon Province, Mindanao, in late December 2014 was led by Alma Mohagan (blue shirt, second from left in group photo). (Photos by Alma Mohagan)

Bukidnon Province and North Carolina have not always been so far apart in my mind, since an old friend who moved to North Carolina over 30 years ago was once a farmer in Bukidnon. An American by birth, Dan Graham built a farm and started his family in Bukidnon but had to flee during political disruptions. My family ultimately helped him find his farm in North Carolina, and I always heard names like Bukidnon and Malaybalay when he would tell us stories of the place he loved. It was complete coincidence that I ended up looking for cyphos in Bukidnon, actually finding some near his old farm above the village of Songko. He followed the hunt for cyphos this summer closely, and I emailed him pictures from the field as much as I could. In early January Dan passed away, but his family maintains ties with Bukidnon and the family there. My mind keeps dwelling on this odd unfolding of events and the strange reality that an area so good for a farmer would also be so good for animals that need pristine habitat.

Read All Posts From Ronald Clouse

Ronald Clouse investigates the histories of invertebrates found in the leaf litter. He works mostly with arthropods in the Indo-Pacific, especially harvestmen (daddy-long-legs) and ants. He also works with harvestmen in Brazil and the southern U.S., and he is interested in the processes by which we reconstruct history using DNA and morphology.

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