THE ATS MYTH SLAYER
ON SOME NASTY SCORPION MYTHS

From Forum Vol. 6, No. 1

An article on scorpions was printed last year in a potentially influential magazine with misleading and bad information, grabbing our attention.

The article reared its ugly little head within the pages of the August, 1996 issue of Reptiles Magazine. The author, a DVM, admitted he didn't know much about arachnids and made his first mistake by getting a nod from the editor to try to answer the question "Are there any scorpion medical problems to watch out for?" The unfortunate vet's blunders continued to accumulate in nearly every paragraph like feathers on a freshly tarred man running through a goose-down pillow factory.

Mascariņo, upon first reading the article, demanded a public hanging of the author (or equivalent) be carried out immediately. When it became obvious that this was not forthcoming, he wanted a full retraction with corrections. To this day, I don't believe even a letter about the incident has been printed, so I thought a word or two here might help.

The photo caption hook at the beginning of the Reptiles article said; "Even though they don't sting, emperor scorpions should still be handled carefully because they can deliver a painful pinch with their large claws." Rockwell Gaban (a scorpion person we will be hearing a lot more about after his new book is published) says he has talked to scorpion collectors "who only felt comfortable handling this species up until the first time they were stung." Gaban feels no scorpion should be handled.

In this lawsuit-crazy world, the Reptiles article author may really have messed up with his bold, unsubstantiated statement. Although emperor scorpions do not have potentially harmful venom to humans (unless allergic, which goes for everything), they do sting if sufficiently provoked. Since court awards are based on emotion, and almost never on science, Reptiles Magazine may get soaked by irate parents of shrieking children holding the Reptiles article in the hand not smarting from the sting of an emperor scorpion. I can't believe they didn't catch this.

On a more stickler sidebar, calling the pinching parts "claws" is fine if you explain what they are first, which they didn't. Those little pinchy, nasty claw-like thingamajigs (sorry, that was a small bit of Reptiles lingo there) are parts of appendages called pedipalps. The two segments used for grabbing are composed of the enlarged tibia, coupled with the movable tarsus. Collectively, the tibia and tarsus on the pedipalps are called the chela. After this is explained, I suppose they can call them claws, or whatever term they want until the cows come home.

Foraging further into the article, we smash headlong into the statement "Having been morphologically unchanged for the last 200 million years,..." which I'm sure the author believed, since it is still in many textbooks. About 90 fossil scorpion species have been identified so far, some perhaps as old as nearly 450 million years (Sissom 1990). Almost all of them had gills and absorbed their oxygen from water. Later scorpions had book lungs for air breathing and were almost certainly terrestrial (Sissom 1990). As Sissom (1990) states, "The genera Compsoscorpius and Palaeopisthacanthus are the only Paleozoic scorpions to be included in this group (Neoscorpionina). Obviously, the claim in many paleontology and invertebrate-zoology textbooks that scorpions were the first terrestrial arthropods has been refuted." I don't want to burst any bubbles, but this means that whatever the first land animal really was is still up for grabs, but scorpions have been all but removed as the possible title holder.

So although scorpions may superficially look unchanged for the last 200 million years, this is not the case. It may be getting more clear to many readers how arthropod myths are perpetuated, even with the best of intentions.

The paragraph finishes with words saying in effect that no scorpions in the US are poisonous (he didn't specify to what, I'm sure all of them are very poisonous if you are some kind of arthropod or another) except for "the highly venomous Centruroides sculpturatus." The species is actually Centruroides exilicauda (Wood), not C. sculpturatus. What sticks in my craw (not to be confused with claw, or pedipalps) is the careless use of "venomous." Venomous might mean something with snakes, I don't know, we don't deal with snakes. With most arthropods, the word "venomous" is without meaning in the context normally implied when it is used. When trying to relate that an arachnid has venom that is potentially harmful, or fatal to humans, those are the words you use. Not highly venomous. All except one family of spiders and part of another have venom. All scorpions have venom. All are likely poisonous to some animal, whether as toxins or paralyzing agents. I hope better future terminology will help with this problem.

The next paragraph in the article tells us, quote "The three most common species found in the pet trade are Pandinus empirator, the "Africa emperor," which is the animal you have; Heterometrus spp., the "Malayasian emperor;" and Hadrurus spp., the "hairy scorpion."

Pandinus imperator (C. L. Koch) is the emperor scorpion, Pandinus spp. are the African emperor scorpions (the "i" and "e" in the species name were apparently switched). There are 21 species of Heterometrus, only one of which has a common name. Hadrurus spp. are the giant hairy scorpions, with eight species. It would appear the author has a problem with arithmetic. He left out the zero, and meant 30 instead of 3. I suppose that was close enough.

A life expectancy for scorpions was listed as "upwards of four years," but this revelation must be a wild guess originating from drawing a random number out of a hat. Polis & Sissom (1990) report lifespans as short as a single year in one species, to 25 years or longer for Hadrurus arizonensis Ewing.

The article continued with "Scorpions molt throughout life..." This statement makes me think his primary reference had to be a comic book. Polis & Sissom (1990) list a range of molts to maturity for members of the Scorpiones as four to nine. The average is probably five to seven (Sissom pers. comm.). When they are adult after the final molt, they are not known to molt again. Much of the lifespan of many species is spent as non-molting adults.

The author indicates in two places that damaged limbs are regenerated at the next molt, as happens in immature spiders (or in some cases, adult female spiders of many mygalomorphs and some advanced spider species). Gaban, in all his years of experience with many scorpion species, has yet to see any of his scorpions regenerate any appendage, even partially. Sissom, in his review of Gaban's upcoming nuts and bolts scorpion care book, basically said that regeneration of appendages is rare, but might occur occasionally and is usually only partial.

Now things get serious, and scorpions can be killed by following the advice of the author in the sentence "Scorpions evolved in tropical climates, and as such, have never escaped a biological dependence upon moist conditions." Some species, perhaps all, of Pandinus do require moist conditions. If moist conditions are maintained with many of the popular desert species, high scorpion mortality is the most likely outcome. The lack of knowledge on the part of the author now becomes dangerous to the lives of many scorpions kept in captivity. The rest of the article is a muddle of guesses that may or may not have value for any number of scorpion species, which were not identified.

If I should ever desire to write an article on some reptile, I'd make certain at least two people with expertise, preferably with the species I was writing about, at least briefly looked the article over. The Reptiles Magazine vet wrote the article without having anyone who might know something about scorpions look it over, instead gleaning the misinformation from bad books. He could easily have found someone to review it, but did not bother, and his article is a typical result of these methods.

Much warm appreciation and thanks go to Dr. W. David Sissom for fixing my mistakes in this article.

References

Polis, G. A. & W. D. Sissom. 1990. Life history.
In, The biology of scorpions. G. A. Polis (Ed.).
Stanford Univ. Press, Stanford, California 587 pp.

Sissom, W. D. 1990. Systematics, biogeography, and paleontology.
In, The biology of scorpions. G. A. Polis (Ed.).
Stanford Univ. Press, Stanford, California 587 pp.

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