Scorpions: a sting in the tail

2013-02-14 00:00

THE very word “scorpion” can strike fear into the heart of even the toughest person, especially if they are camping and it is very dark in their tent. However, we need to have the greatest respect and even admiration for scorpions as they are believed to be the oldest known group of terrestrial arthropods — fossils dating back to the Silurion period some 440 million years ago. We must conclude that as a group of animals, they have indeed been hugely successful.

Scorpions are not insects, but belong to the animal group called Arachnida, and so are more closely related to spiders than insects. Most people think of scorpions as secretive animals because they are usually found hiding under dead tree trunks or stones. However, at night they run around actively under the cover of darkness and may be quite bold and adventurous.

Many people also think of scorpions as desert creatures, and while there are many that survive well in arid areas, they can be found virtually everywhere in Africa. Trying to find scorpions during the day can be hard work, but at night the opposite is often true. The fact that scorpions fluoresce under ultra-violet light makes it particularly easy to find them, especially in open desert conditions, if you have the necessary equipment.

All scorpions are venomous. This is because they are all predators and use their venom to subdue their prey. The venom gland, placed at the very tip of their long tails, is only brought into play once a prey item has been grasped by their strong crab-like pincers, or chelicerae. Some species rely more on their pincers than on their venom and these can be recognised by the possession of slender tails and stout chelicerae. Others rely more on venom and so they are characterised by having thick powerful tails and relatively weak chelicerae. Clearly, it’s the latter group that people need to be particularly weary of as they pack a powerful punch when they sting.

One of my photos shows a scorpion of the genus Cheloctonus that was lurking around under the bark of a tree in the Kosi Bay area. These, and a number of other species, are commonly found in forests where loose bark or fallen tree trunks provide the shelter they require.

The other photo is of a species of Uroplectes, one of the most common groups in southern Africa. These are usually found under stones, as was the one photographed. Many Uroplectes are quite brightly coloured and attractive. Interestingly enough, Uroplectes are responsible for the majority of scorpion stings in southern Africa and can be fairly common in houses, even in urban areas. While the stings of some scorpions are potentially deadly, an Uroplectes sting is not lethally toxic, but can be extremely painful. The use of anti-venom is not recommended and the most effective treatment is simply to apply an ice pack to the affected area as soon as possible. This gives immediate relief from pain which would otherwise last for at least three hours.

While many people believe that the only good scorpion is a dead one, I would urge people to refrain from killing them. Essentially, scorpions should be viewed as beneficial, in as much as they prey on a wide range of small creatures, some of which, like cockroaches, are household pests. If you find a scorpion where you would prefer it not to live, put it in a suitable container and release it elsewhere.

I have been long fascinated by a story I heard about someone being treated for a scorpion sting by having an electric shock applied to the affected area. I have now discovered that this type of treatment has a long history, especially in Third World countries. Apparently, one can apply the spark plug wire of an internal combustion engine to the site of a sting with considerable success. However, I urge you not to try this if you have no experience of the technique.

• Dr Jason Londt is a natural scientist with a special interest in entomology. He welcomes queries and comments, which can be sent to him at jasonlondt@telkomsa.net Please do not send large attachments.

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