The scorpion’s softer side

northern-scorpion-by-meredith-walker
Northern Scorpion. Photo by Meredith Swett Walker

It is hard to think of a creature less likely to inspire warm, fuzzy feelings than the scorpion. They have pincers, an intimidating stinger, and are rumored to hide in shoes. Plus, they are hard to categorize and this makes humans uncomfortable. Is a scorpion an insect? Is it a crustacean like a crab? They look “crunchy”, “pinch-ey” and “stingy” all at once.

It turns out that the unlovable scorpion– which is neither insect nor crustacean– has a softer side. These creepy crawlies turn out to be caring mothers. Their venom may help scientists develop important medications. Though they cause many people to shudder, scorpions deserve a second look.

Scorpions are arachnids like spiders, and like spiders they have eight legs. The two front limbs that bear their pincer claws are technically “pedipalps,” not legs, and are not used in walking. While scorpions may look like an alien visitor from a chilling sci-fi film, they have walked the earth longer than almost any other animal. Scorpions evolved at least 430 million years ago, long before the dinosaurs. In fact, the oldest known fossil of a land dwelling animal is a scorpion found in 2013 in South Africa.  Modern scorpions are found on every continent except Antarctica.

Clearly scorpions have mastered the art of surviving on planet Earth and the secret of their success may be their low-key lifestyle. They are nocturnal and hide from daylight under rocks or in burrows, emerging at night to hunt insects. But scorpions are essentially “couch potatoes.” They have a very inactive lifestyle and a low metabolic rate which means they require very little energy or food. Unlike human couch potatoes, scorpions can go a long time without a meal. Some species have been reported to go up to a year between feedings.

Yet scorpions are not slackers in the parenting department. Female scorpions give birth to live young rather than lay eggs. The newborn scorpions are defenseless– their screen-shot-2017-01-14-at-12-23-12-pmexoskeletons do not harden until they are older so their pincers are soft and useless and their stingers are blunt. To keep them out of danger, mother scorpions carry their babies around on their backs until they are old enough to defend themselves.

Scorpions sometimes use their stingers to subdue prey that they catch with their pincers. They will also sting in self-defense, and if they feel the need to defend themselves from your incoming foot– you may be in for some pain. Most scorpion stings are no more painful than a bee sting and ultimately harmless. Only one scorpion in the U.S. has venom powerful enough to cause life-threatening illness in humans. The Arizona bark scorpion, which is found in the Sonoran Desert, has a neurotoxin in its venom that can cause extreme pain and numbness. But fatalities due to its sting are rare.

Scorpion venom may turn out to provide more benefit than harm to humans. The venom contains a number of different chemicals that have potential as drugs. Scientists are currently investigating components of scorpion venom that may be useful in treating brain tumors and malaria. Who knows what other secrets may hide in the scorpion’s stinger?

Though there are plenty of scorpions in the Grand Valley, they keep a low profile and are seldom seen. If you do encounter a scorpion, before you run away shrieking or stomp it to smithereens, take a breath and consider letting it go its merry way. These secretive creatures are less menacing than may they appear.

This article was originally published in the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel in May 2016

The scorpion’s softer side