South African Peripatopsids (Peripatopsis spp.)

Velvet worm, Peripatopsis sp.
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South African Peripatopsids fact file

South African Peripatopsids description

GenusPeripatopsis (1)

Velvet worms belong to a phylum of their own, the Onychophora, meaning 'claw-bearers' (2), and are a fascinating group of ancient, caterpillar-like animals that have changed little over the last 400 million years (4). These small, shy creatures are rarely seen in their natural habitat yet have long fascinated scientists, because they seem to share traits with both arthropods (a group that includes insects and spiders) and annelids (segmented worms), providing an evolutionary ‘missing link’ between the two (5). Ringed antennae are positioned on top of the head, with eyes near the base (6), and there are clawed legs down the whole length of the body (2). The skin is covered with scaly papillae and sensory hairs, which give these animals the velvety appearance their common name suggests (6). Velvet worms are generally blue-grey or brownish in colour, and often intricately patterned with stripes, diamonds, spots or chevrons (2). However, there are two white cave-dwelling velvet worms, of which the white cave velvet worm (Peripatopsis alba) is one, and these species lack eyes (7). Lion’s Hill velvet worm (P. leonina) was formerly considered extinct, having last been collected in 1900, but it is now thought that populations may remain, since velvet worms are notoriously cryptic and difficult to find (1).

Length (onychophora): up to 10 cm (2)

South African Peripatopsids biology

Velvet worms are generally carnivorous, feeding on other small invertebrates such as termites, woodlice, small spiders and small molluscs (2) (5). These animals are largely nocturnal and have an interesting and unusual hunting technique (6). To capture their prey, these worms squirt a sticky white liquid from their oral tubes, which entangles their quarry (2) (5). Digestive juices are then secreted into the prey’s body, and partially-digested tissue is sucked up (6). The sticky slime is also squirted at potential predators in self-defence, giving the velvet worm more time to escape (2) (5). The diet and means of capture of the blind white cave velvet worm (P. alba) may be slightly different, however, due to its unusual environment, but currently remains unknown (7).

The reproductive trends of some Peripatopsis species are unknown, but are likely to be similar to other members of the genus. Thus, gestation for this group is thought to last approximately 12 to 13 months, with around 40 live young produced per year by each female (1) (7). The white cave velvet worm (P. alba), however, is believed to produce only around 20 young per year (1) (7). Sexual maturity is attained by 9 to 11 months and the life span is about six to seven years (1) (7).


South African Peripatopsids range

Found in South Africa. The white cave velvet worm (P. alba) is known only from the Table Mountain and Bats Cave system of the Western Cape, the Knysna velvet worm (P. clavigera) along the coastal region of the George / Knysna area in the Western Cape, and in the Tsitsikamma Forest in the Eastern Cape, and Lion’s Hill velvet worm (P. leonina) from Lion's Hill (Signal Hill) of the Cape Peninsula, Western Cape (1).


South African Peripatopsids habitat

In Wynberg Cave, the white cave velvet worm (P. alba) has largely been located in a galley 30 m below the surface that is constantly damp, continuously dark, and where the only vegetation is small greyish lichen (1) (7). The Knysna velvet worm (P. clavigera) inhabits the forest floor of indigenous Afromontane forest, in rotting logs and amongst moist leaf litter (1) (7). Lion’s Hill velvet worm (P. leonina) was originally collected from Fynbos habitat, in small ravines under stones (1).


South African Peripatopsids status

There are three species listed on the IUCN Red List 2006 (1); the white cave velvet worm (P. alba) and the Knysna velvet worm (P. clavigera) are classified as Vulnerable (VU), and Lion’s Hill velvet worm (P. leonina) is classified as Critically Endangered (CR). Two further species not listed by the IUCN Red List are known – P. moseleyi and P. capensis (3).


South African Peripatopsids threats

Peripatopsis species are endangered by a wide range of threats. The white cave velvet worm (P. alba) is threatened by over collection for research purposes, trampling by cavers, and increased air pollution in the caves. The Knysna velvet worm (P. clavigera) has suffered from habitat loss and degradation, with the areas in which it occurs having undergone extensive development, involving the construction of upmarket housing complexes, tourist facilities and roads, particularly over the last 10 to 20 years. There is considerable concern for the future of this species since its range is one of the prime tourism spots in the country and South Africa’s tourism industry is continuing to grow. Several of the Knysna forests are also sustainably logged, and alien plant invasion has been a problem, with exotic plantations surrounding the remaining forests. Lion’s Hill velvet worm (P. leonina) has only been recorded in one small area and has not been collected since 1900. The habitat where it was found has undergone enormous changes in the last 100 years through the construction of houses and roads, development of recreational areas, the creation of exotic plantations, and massive increases in the levels of air pollution. It may be that this species is already extinct (1).


South African Peripatopsids conservation

Permits are required by a national conservation agency to collect wild fauna, and certain localities, such as Tsitsikamma where the Knysna velvet worm (P. clavigera) is found, are formerly protected. It has been advocated that access to caves should be prohibited or limited to help conserve the white cave velvet worm (P. alba) (1). It would be a tremendous shame if these species of enormous scientific intrigue and important evolutionary clues should disappear from the wild forever. Sadly, it may already be too late for Lion’s Hill velvet worm (P. leonina).


Find out more

For more information on South African Peripatopsids see:

IUCN Red List:

For more information on conservation in South Africa, see:



Authenticated (26/07/2006) by Dr. Michelle Hamer, Co-ordinator of the Inland Invertebrate Initiative, and member of the IUCN/SSC Southern African Working Group for Invertebrates.



The area of high altitudes on the mountains of Africa.
The scrubland characteristic of the Western Cape area of South Africa, consisting of bushes resembling heaths with hard leaves.
Active at night.
Any minute conical surface projection.


  1. IUCN Red List (May, 2006)
  2. Australian Museum Online: Velvet Worms (March, 2006)
  3. UNEP-WCMC (March, 2006)
  4. Conservation International: Centre for Applied Biodiversity Science (March, 2006)
  5. University of California: Museum of Paleontology (March, 2006)
  6. Animals: The animal information centre (March, 2006)
  7. Inland Invertebrate Initiative: Database of Threatened Invertebrates of South Africa (March, 2006)

Image credit

Velvet worm, Peripatopsis sp.  
Velvet worm, Peripatopsis sp.

© Anthony Bannister /

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