The Knysna Velvet Worm, known to the scientific community as the Peripatopsis clavigera, is endemic to South Africa, where it predominantly inhabits the moist subtropical or tropical mountain forests of the George/ Knysna coastal regions, the Western Cape and the Eastern Cape's Tsitsikamma Forest.
Belonging to their own phylum (a taxonomic division placed between an animal kingdom and the class of animal), the Onychophora (which means 'claw-bearers'), Velvet Worms have changed very little over the past 400 million years, making them an ancient and fascinating group of creatures.
Somewhat caterpillar-like, these worms are of exceptional paleontological interest to scientists, as they are regarded as living fossils sharing particular traits with both annelids, or segmented worms, and arthropods, which include spiders and insects.
Knysna Velvet Worms have ringed antennae on top of their heads, with eyes positioned at the base. Covered in sensory hairs and scaly papillae, the skin of this shy creature is typically brownish or blue-grey in colour, often bearing intricate patterns of chevrons, diamonds, spots or stripes. The legs along the full lengths of the Knysna Velvet Worm are clawed.
Ecology and Habitat
Living mostly among damp leaf litter, under or in rotting fallen logs or trees, the Knysna Velvet Worm can grow up to 50 mm (2 in) in length and has a life span of around six to seven years. Young Knysna Velvet Worms reach sexual maturity at the age of about 9 to 11 months. It is believed that generation times and general reproductive trends are similar to those of other species within this genus.
The female Knysna Velvet Worm bears live young, which is quite exceptional, and produces no more than around 40 young worms per year, following a gestation period of between 12 and 13 months.
Strictly carnivorous and nocturnal, the Knysna Velvet Worm hunts by ejecting a snare of immobilising glue from oral tubes over its prey. It then proceeds to secrete digestive juices into the prey and eventually sucks up the partly digested tissue. The immobilising glue is, by the way, also used as a defence. The Knysna Velvet Worm will squirt this sticky white fluid over potential predators, providing it with a little extra time to escape.
Conservation Status and Threats
This beautiful, cryptic creature is listed as vulnerable, because much of its habitat is continually undergoing changes. Fragmentation of forest through roads, deforestation to make room for plantations and other urban and sub-urban developments are resulting in on-going loss of habitat. As it is very difficult to find populations of Knysna Velvet Worms, it is difficult to determine just how much these populations have declined as a result.
What is known is that reports that the species was extinct in 1996 were wrong, and although exact numbers are unknown, the Knysna Velvet Worm remains among the living for now. Fortunately, some of the natural habitat of this fascinating creature is located within sustainably logged state forests, providing at least a little protection, but much of the region is threatened by invasive alien plants and man-made destruction/ degradation of forests.