Formula for Survival

Formula for Survival

Scorpions are probably front—runners among the creatures that nobody loves. Every one of the 700 known species, ranging from one—half inch to over nine inches in length, is characterized by a poisonous stinger at the end of the tail. Size is not an exact formula for the power of the poison, and awareness of the smaller scorpions is always prudent. (Few people need to be reminded to stay clear of the seven— to nine—inch models!)

The formidable reputation of scorpions can be traced back to their ancestry in early Paleozoic time. By the Silurian period, 430 mybp, their ancestors, the eurypterids, were well—developed sea dwellers. Commonly equipped with brutal claws, spines, a vicious stinger, and a generous poison gland (the first for any species), eurypterids were among the most powerful rulers of the crowded Silurian seas. There were many varieties, typically 5 to 30 inches in length, but some giants attained a length of nine feet. These creatures gratifyingly became extinct, and unknown descendants crawled out of the densely populated seas onto the driest of land. Here on the deserts of the earth their evolutionary nieces and nephews, the modern scorpions, have been at home for millions of years—the first poisonous creatures to inhabit dry land.

In the early days of civilization people in warm, dry climates such as in the Near East and Egypt walked around in open sandals. This was particularly hazardous because several deadly varieties of scorpions abound in such climates. Open sandals made the people easy victims, but for many generations they seemed to accept it as an unavoidable natural hazard. Therefore, many died from scorpions stings. One group of disgruntled people finally decided to take steps to protect themselves from scorpions. They were the ancient Assyrians, who simply invented the boot! For this invention the world is eternally grateful, as long as we remember to beware of the old scorpion—in—the—boot trick.

Similarly the scorpions helped to develop the art of carpet making, for they were among the creepy crawlies that made sitting on the grass or sleeping out of doors hazardous to health and well—being. The Moslems, required to prostrate themselves regularly for prayers, were determined to make devotion to the Supreme Being less lethal. A portable "floor" of sheep's wool, laced naturally with lanolin, discouraged invasion from all kinds of arthropods, which usually avoid greasy substances.

In the tropical and subtropical regions of the world, dense populations of scorpions live in a number of specific areas. They concentrate in and around human dwellings, generally under anything, ready to crawl out at night. The assortment of species in each region, including the southwestern United States, ranges from harmless to painful to deadly. Many barefooted citizens in warm regions are victims of the scorpion, and in a number of places, including the United States and Mexico, scorpion stings cause more deaths than do snakebites.

The scorpion population was so high during the late 1940s in Durango, Mexico, that the government offered a bounty for them. In three months over 100,000 specimens were turned in for bounty, and this harvest was repeated several times. The bounty is no longer in effect, and Durango remains as overrun with scorpions as ever. On the other side of the world, researchers in an infested area in the Namib Desert and others in Bombay have encountered scorpions every few feet throughout the countryside. One scientist collected over 14,000 specimens in a single night.

Scorpions unfortunately do not avoid human companionship and all too frequently do not hesitate to share a bed or sleeping bag with any accessible human. The sting can be fatal to a child or to an infirm or elderly person. The scorpion's reputation is tarnished further by this record, although its basic problem is simply that it is overabundant around human habitations. Since stinging humans does nothing to keep it alive and well, the scorpion would doubtless avoid people if it could. Humans who live where scorpions are common would do well to be careful and observant at all times and avoid the scorpion.

The problem of keeping visible has been partially solved by several species of desert scorpions. They fluoresce under ultraviolet light and are brightly visible when a black light shines on them. This happens often in fluorescent mineral country, where prospectors for such hard—to—distinguish minerals as wolframite, fluorite, calcite, and scheelite often locate the minerals with a black light.

To keep visible light at a minimum, mineral hunters explore the desert at night. Almost all creatures are stirring because the temperatures after sunset are more tolerable. Many a prospector, reaching for an object glowing in the dark under a black light, has received an agonizing sting instead of the thrill of discovering sought—after minerals. They quickly and painfully learn not to grab every object that glows in the black light.

The scorpion is a solitary, nocturnal arachnid. Its principal food is other arachnids, particularly spiders, or even other scorpions, since they are not immune to their own venom. An excellent hunter, the scorpion can eat until it almost bursts when food is plentiful. It converts extra food into carbohydrates and when sustenance is unavailable reduces body metabolism and consumes the stored carbohydrates. By living off the "fat of the abdomen," the scorpion can sustain itself for a full year without a morsel of food. Truly a formula for survival.

Although scorpions generally keep to themselves, the situation changes dramatically at mating time. Because each partner could regard the other as a meal rather than a mate, many protective rituals are part of the courting procedure. They begin their relationship by locking pincers and intertwining tails to immobilize their sting apparatuses. They gyrate backward and forward in a strange primitive dance, and after some time their shuffling steps will have cleared the dance floor of much of its debris. Then the male extrudes a packet of sperm on the cleared area and heaves the female directly over it. The mating is then completed. Unless the male unlocks and runs, a wedding feast takes place attended only by the female, for she will sting the male to death and consume him. This cannibalistic ritual, performed by a number of spiders and insects, is a most expedient way to provide an excellent source of protein for the growing brood of eggs.

Development of the eggs can take several months to a year, depending on the species. Several score are born alive, ready to climb aboard their mother. They often cover her entire dorsal area. Consuming the food stored in their bodies, they remain on the mother's back for a week or two until they molt and can fend for themselves. This marks the end of maternal responsibility. Neither offspring nor mother will have any further contact with the other, unless the mother and a male offspring meet by chance during another mating season. All of this is part of an intricate formula for survival.

A few unconventional people keep scorpions as docile, well—trained pets. Itinerant performers in West Africa capture and tame large scorpions, allowing the arachnids to live inside their voluminous clothing. The poisonous tail spine is rarely removed, yet these potentially dangerous creatures wander freely over their owners. They are truly well—tutored pets and will respond to commands given to them by a mere touch of their owner's finger. Strangely, scorpion training has not been included among the top 10 high—stress occupations, nor is it high on the list of career objectives.

From the book: 
Petrified Lightning