A friend’s son had a very logical question after seeing a common crawler. Four-year-old Connor exclaimed, “Look, a daddy long legs . . . where is the Connor long legs and the mama long legs?”   

Daddy long legs is a nickname for a group of arachnids from the insect order opiliones. They are also called harvestmen and granddaddy longlegs, though these names have nothing to do with the gender of the animal. There are, of course, female daddies and at least two types of male daddy long legs.  

In an interesting twist, each of these males, referred to as alpha and beta, have unique strategies to attract those lady long legs. Alpha males are the larger of the two, yet smaller than the females, and more aggressive when looking to mate with a female.  

Smaller beta males resemble females and use that likeness to sneak by other males and get close to females who can mistake the beta male for another female and be less wary of its approach. That tricky behavior gives the betas the nickname “sneaker” males.  

Just don’t call them spiders. Daddy long legs are not spiders at all, having only one pair (or sometimes no pairs) of eyes, a fused body without a narrowing waist, and an inability to spin a web. They do share the same scientific class--arachnid--with spiders, but that is as far as the relationship goes.  

No matter what name you use for them, all members of the opiliones have (to steal a line from ZZ Top) “got legs, and know how to use them.”  

All of the many thousands of species in the order have four pairs of legs. The second and largest pair of legs, which can be 30 times as long as the creature’s body in some species, provide all of the animal’s senses, including touch, taste and smell.  

While this pair, and all of the insect’s legs, have important functions, it is not unusual for the animal to lose them. Daddy long legs practice autotomy, or self-amputation. In their case, releasing a leg can allow the animal to escape a predator or get out of a sticky situation. 

These lost legs, even when left behind, can twitch or move for up to an hour after they have separated from the body to which they were formerly attached. This activity, caused by a pacemaker of sorts at the end of the leg, can confuse even the smartest predator. Unfortunately for the less-legged daddy long legs, lost legs won’t grow back.  

They have other survival techniques, regardless of leg count. Daddy long legs practice thanatosis, or “play dead” to trick predators and survive another day.

Another show of strength is their predilection for clumping, or grouping together of many individuals. This massing of daddy long legs shows the power of many for protection. It also helps the individual animals by producing heat and moisture. And since daddy long legs can emit a foul-smelling substance to deter others, the gross gathering can together cause a significant stink.  

All of these facts help these determined daddies get a leg up on the competition and you will be seeing a lot of them. As their name implies, they are out and about now during the harvest season, the females laying eggs in the soil to overwinter.    

You can observe these lengthy-legged wonders for a bit longer, but know that both the growing season and the opiliones will soon be on their last legs. 

Suzan Bellincampi is islands director for Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown and the Nantucket Wildlife Sanctuaries. She is also the author of Martha’s Vineyard: A Field Guide to Island Nature and The Nature of Martha’s Vineyard.