Last month, I wrote about the discovery of two new scorpion species. I quickly became enamored with these stinger-endowed social rejects because, to me, they seemed like outcasts. A little too hairy and a little too pinchy to classify as charismatic, scorpions strike fear in the hearts of many—through no fault of their own.
In my reporting, I spoke with Zia Nisani, biology professor at Antelope Valley College, which is just north of Los Angeles. From him, I learned that scorpions—in all their venomous, creepy crawly glory—aren’t the blood-curdling demons people make them out to be.
Nisani, who studies scorpion behavior and ecology, has long wanted to help rehab their reputations, so we collected some claims about scorpions from friends, colleagues and the internet, and I ran them by Nisani for some mythbusting. Here’s our edited, condensed conversation.
Claim: Scorpions don’t exist in the Bay Area. (One of my colleagues thought so, anyway.)
The Bay Area has scorpions. [Our most commonly sighted scorpion here in the Bay Area is the Western Forest Scorpion, top left in image below.]
Claim: Scorpions only live in deserts.
Scorpions live everywhere except the ocean—even though they evolved from aquatic creatures—and the poles. They exist in forests, humid areas, all types of habitats.
In some movies, a lot of times they use emperor scorpions, which are not desert scorpions. But they get put in desert movies because emperor scorpions are large and very menacing looking—but they’re not deadly.
There was a James Bond movie where these two assassins used scorpions to kill people. They’re in the desert and it’s an emperor scorpion. I’ve been stung by an emperor scorpion—they’re not deadly at all, and they don’t live in the desert. They’re more like forest-dwellers. [But] because they’re big and black, they stand out against a desert background. If you look at most of the desert scorpions out there, they’re well-camouflaged.
Claim: Scorpions live in dishwashers. At least, in Texas. (From a colleague’s friend, who lives in Texas.)
Scorpions can live anywhere, right? So in Arizona, bark scorpions can be found in homes because they like to climb in there. So is it possible for a scorpion to be found in a dishwasher by accident? Absolutely. But do they do it out of habit? No. You know, if people run the dishwasher, there’s soap, and, of course, that’s not good for the scorpion. But is it possible somebody saw a scorpion in the dishwasher? It’s possible. I mean, I have found scorpions in my shoes in the past, but that does not mean they like to live in my shoes.
Claim: Scorpions are aggressive toward humans.
No. If anything, they’ll try to avoid us as much as possible. Plus, we’re not food, so why would they bother with us? The only time they’re aggressive is when they’re defending themselves.
For example, the desert hairy scorpion—they have their own burrows. When out in the field collecting, you’ll see them peeking out of their burrows. As you’re walking by, because they can pick up vibrations in the sand, they’ll go back into their burrows.
They’re not out to get us because—think about it—we’re not a food source, right? And their venom is metabolically expensive. That’s my personal proudest contribution. I showed that it takes a lot of energy for them to replenish their venom, with all these complex peptides and everything else. So, why waste it on a human being?
Most of the time when humans get stung, it’s either because we accidentally squish them or grab them, or somebody is just being an idiot. If you’re gentle enough, they probably won’t sting you.
They will defend themselves if needed. The defensive studies that I have done have shown that most of the time, their first sting is probably dry anyway. Either they’ll tuck in their stinger and just jab you, or they will sting you, but they won’t deposit any venom. But as the threat persists, they will inject more venom.
We see everything as a threat when we don’t understand it, right? Not to get too philosophical, but it is that same perception we have of humans—people we don’t understand, we perceive them as threats.
Claim: Scorpions can kill you.
Some can—species in South America, Central America, Africa, and so forth. We talked about bark scorpions. Throughout the world, there’s always species—but very few.
The bark scorpion is the only medically important scorpion [possessing venom potent enough to be fatal] we have in the United States [it is found in parts of the Southwestern United States, and was introduced in Indio, California]. For bark scorpions, their venom evolved to be potent against their mammalian predators, and we humans got caught in the crossfire. Worldwide, out of around 2,700 scorpion species, less than 50 are medically important.
Where would western forest scorpions, the most commonly observed scorpion in the Bay Area, rank in terms of venom potency compared to a honeybee or a rattlesnake or a tarantula hawk?
At the bottom. Tarantula hawks won’t kill you, but they’re quite painful. Honeybees are painful, but some people are allergic to them, so they can die. Rattlesnakes are of course deadlier. Western forest scorpions are towards the bottom.
Obviously, don’t go and get yourself stung on purpose. You never know, maybe somebody’s allergic. I have never seen it, but you never know, with preexisting conditions.
There’s Syrian folklore I heard from my colleague: you can sleep next to a snake, but don’t even stare at a scorpion. That’s the level of fear people have against scorpions in comparison to snakes, but then again, I know there are deadly scorpions in the Middle East.
Claim: Baby scorpions are more deadly than adults; smaller scorpions are more deadly than larger scorpions.
A common misconception. People think baby scorpions haven’t learned how to control their venom. I don’t think age plays any role in the toxicity of the venom. For example, bark scorpions are generally smaller in size than other scorpions, and they’re more dangerous—but baby bark scorpions are not necessarily more dangerous.
There are some South American and African scorpions that are both large and medically important, like Androctonus and Parabuthus, which can squirt venom.
Claim: Scorpion stings leave a visible mark.
The larger ones maybe, but the bark scorpion, the only medically important scorpion in all of the United States, does not because it’s so small.
Claim: Scorpions travel in pairs.
No. Scorpions are solitary. Actually, they’re quite cannibalistic because they’re opportunistic feeders, so I’ve never seen scorpions travel in pairs. The only time I see them even close to each other is during the mating season, when the males are trailing the females’ scent.
In all the collecting I have done [around 12 years], the closest I have seen two scorpions to each other is about 40 centimeters [~16 inches], and that was probably during the mating season, so these males were wandering, looking for a female.
Claim: Scorpions are nearly blind.
They’re not blind. They can have multiple eyes. The general consensus is that they don’t have good vision because they’re nocturnal. There are a few researchers who believe scorpions probably possess good eyesight. It would be great if more research is done in this area.
I think their chemosensory and tactile senses are so good that they depend less on their eyes, because they have these hairs on their tarsi [leg segment] that can detect sand vibrations. Their bodies have hairs that can detect changes in pressure and air and even scent—their pectines can smell, the constellation arrays on their pedipalps can also possibly smell.
Since those senses are so well-tuned, they rely less on their eyes, but they’re definitely not blind.
Claim: Scorpions are the only species that will commit sucide by stinging themselves if placed in a ring of fire. (Something Nisani heard; also mentioned here.)
Why would this evolve in the first place? I think the most likely origin is maybe someone put a scorpion in a ring of fire, and because of the excessive heat it kind of curled up on itself, so it looked like it stung itself. All I know is that a firefighter told me this once, but it is not true.
TRUE SCORPION FACTS:
- Scorpions glow in the dark under UV light.
- Scorpions are venomous—not poisonous. Poison is passive; venom means they have a tool to deliver their chemical weapon. “But that doesn’t mean the venom is dangerous to us,” Nisani says.
- Scorpions give birth to live young. (You can see this on YouTube.)
- All desert scorpions are nocturnal.
- Scorpion venom is a potential source of biomedical advancement, like for pain relief and cancer research. Bark scorpion venom is being investigated as a potential basis for nonaddictive pain relief. “Instead of mimicking neurotransmitters, like opiates do, the venom-derived treatments focus on inactivating the sodium channel,” Nisani says.
- Scorpions feature prominently in mythology. OK, this is really an excuse to share my favorite scorpion myth, which comes from the ancient Greeks. Orion, a famed hunter known for slaying wild beasts, upset Gaia, the earth-goddess and mother of all animals. Unhappy to see her progeny fall at Orion’s hands, Gaia retaliated by sending a great scorpion Orion’s way, and the scorpion ultimately stung Orion to death. Both the scorpion and Orion were memorialized for all time in the constellations we see today.
- They play important roles in ecosystems worldwide. Scorpions are a top predator among invertebrates, and are frequently eaten by vertebrate species, including some bats.