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Animal Reference

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The scorpion

3 October 2013

 

QUICK FACTS

Scientific Name : Arachnida

Size : Between 9 mm and 210 mm

Legs : 8 Jointed legs

Litter size : From 3 to more than 100 young

Deadliest scorpion : Palestine yellow scorpion

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The scorpions, false scorpions, whip scorpions, spiders, sun spiders, harvestmen, mites and ticks are all members of the large animal Class Arachnida with more than 100 000 species of invertebrate with eight jointed legs as opposed to the insects (Class Insecta) that have six jointed legs. In some species other appendages can be so large that they resemble an extra pair of legs. The name of the Class Arachnida is derived from the Greek word aráchnē which means spider.

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The scorpions are the oldest arachnids for which fossils are known and originally lived in water. All the scorpions have a body that consists of three parts containing seven segments and a tail of five segments that ends in a sting. They also have pincers which may be used to grasp and subdue prey. Most scorpions are nocturnal and only become active after sunset. Their bodies react to ultraviolet light which is reflected by the hard external skeleton and scorpions can be found easily with a hand-held ultraviolet light unit. The living scorpions are predatory animals that range in size from 9 mm to 210 mm and are found on all the continents except Antarctica. Only some 25 of the known 1752 described species are so venomous that they are deadly to humans although all the living scorpions possess venom.

The name scorpion is believed to have a Middle-English origin which was coined around 1 000 years ago. It is based on the Old French name skorpiδ or the Italian scorpione, both of which were derived from the Latin name scorpius which in turn has its roots in the Greek name skorpius.

Although most of the living scorpions are terrestrial, some of the oldest fossil scorpions lived in water. The biggest fossil scorpion known Jaekelopterus rhenaniae was recently found in marine deposits near Prϋm in Germany that are 390 million years old. It lived some 460 to 255 million years ago and was almost 2.5 m long. The first scorpions had gills instead of the current book lungs because they lived in water.

www.leopard.tvScorpions occur in a wide range of habitats ranging from deserts to forests, land and water. Most types of scorpion reproduce sexually and have male and female individuals with the brood emerging one by one after fertilisation of the eggs following an intricate mating dance. Individuals find each other by using a mix of pheromones and vibrations. Nevertheless, some scorpions reproduce through parthenogenesis which is the process in which an unfertilised egg develops into a living embryo following the female’s final moult. All the young are born alive (viviparous) and scorpions do not develop externally from eggs (oviparous). The litter size varies from three to more than 100 young. The hard, outer skeleton moults five to seven times in succession until reaching maturity. The lifespan of a scorpion is variable and may range from four to 25 years.

The scorpion is a mythological reminder that death constantly walks with humans. Culturally one of the earliest references to scorpions was the inclusion of Scorpio as one of the twelve signs of the Zodiac Constellation of Babylonian astrologers. The people of ancient Babylon referred to Scorpio as Girab which means the Seizer or Stinger. In northern Africa and Asia the scorpion appears as an art motif but especially so in Islamic art in the Middle East. In Western astrology people that are born under the sign of Scorpio are believed to be strong, lustful, jealous and vengeful. In ancient Egypt the goddess Serket who was one of several goddesses that protected the Pharaoh was often depicted as a scorpion. The brother Seth of Nephys, the queen of the Land of the Dead, was also depicted as a scorpion. The Egyptian goddess of transformation Isis was believed to have been liberated by Toth the god of wisdom from a room in which Seth had held her captive to work at weaving a shroud. She was then given a company of seven scorpions to serve as her bodyguard with the scorpion Tefen having the most venom. The Egyptian scorpion-goddess Selket is depicted with a scorpion on her head and was believed to be able to ease childbirth. Scorpions also appear in many aspects of Buddhism and Asian culture.

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The deadliest scorpion of the world is considered to be the death stalker or Palestine yellow scorpion Leiurus quinquestriatus of the Middle-East and North Africa. Other deadly scorpions are the Arabian fat-tailed scorpion Androctonus crassicauda of the Middle-East and North Africa, the yellow, fat-tailed scorpion Androctonus australis of the Middle-East, North Africa and India, the black spitting, thick-tailed scorpion Parabuthus transvaalicus of Africa and the striped bark scorpion Centruroides vittatus of North America. In South Africa various species of Parabuthus can cause death in humans as they all have a neurotoxic venom. Scorpions with weakly developed pincers have thick and powerful tails and are the most venomous of all while those with large pincers have slender tails and weak venom.

Scorpions are opportunistic feeders that eat a wide range of prey items which normally includes insects, spiders and other scorpions. Nevertheless, some of the larger types will eat snails and small vertebrate animals such as reptiles, frogs and small mammals. The prey is either eaten on the site of the kill or is taken to a burrow under vegetation or a rock, is often turned and eaten from the head first. In turn, scorpions are eaten by large birds, frogs, lizards, snakes and mammals such as mongooses, honey badgers and foxes.

In Africa south of the Zambezi River there are an estimated 130 of the 1752 or so species of scorpion. The family Parabuthidae contains all the most venomous thick-tailed scorpions with small pincers. On Shayamanzi, the following scorpions of this family may be expected to occur:

Parabuthus mossambicensis is a reddish-brown to orange scorpion that lives in reddish sand, is up to 80 mm long, is known to be able to spray venom and is medically important. Parabuthus transvaalicus is a black scorpion that is up to 150 mm long, usually lives under logs, rocks or debris and has a potent venom which it sprays when it is irritated. Pseudolychas pegleri is a reddish-brown scorpion that is up to 45 mm long, lives under debris and has a painful sting that is not medically important. Uroplectus planimanus is a yellowish scorpion with wide pincers that is up to 70 mm long and lives under or on top of rocks. Uroplectus olivaceus is a thick-bodied, black scorpion that is up to 60 mm long and lives under almost any type of debris. Uroplectus carinatus is a yellow-orange to orange-brown scorpion with a dark line down the centre of the tergite (main body) , is up to 50 mm long and lives in scrapes under rocks or hard surface debris. Uroplectus vittatus has a greenish tergite and yellow legs, is up to 55 mm long and lives under the bark of trees or fallen logs. Uroplectus triangulifer is a yellowish scorpion with a dark, olive tergite, two broad, dark bands and yellow legs, is up to 52 mm long and lives in shallow scrapes under rocks in grassland areas.

The slender-tailed and less venomous scorpions with large pincers are classified in the families Ischnuridae and Scorpionidae. The following members of the family Ischnuridae may occur on Shayamanzi: Opiscanthus asper is an intensely black scorpion that forages for food on trees or bushes but especially on dead Acacia trees and is up to 100 mm long. Opiscanthus validus is a blackish-brown scorpion, is up to 90 mm long and lives under rocks and surface debris in grassland areas. Chelectonus jonesii is a brown scorpion with yellow legs, is up to 90 mm long and lives in near-vertical burrows in clay soils. However, in KwaZulu-Natal it is black. Hadogenes troglodytes has many colour variations and is the largest living scorpion in the world at up to 210 mm long. It lives in cracks and narrow spaces in rocky areas and mountains and takes eight to ten years to mature. Of the family Scorpionidae, only Opistophthalmus glabifrons may occur on Shayamanzi. It is a shiny reddish-brown scorpion that is up to 120 mm long and lives in loamy soils where it burrows in the open or under surface debris. The largest members of this species occur in the northern Limpopo province.

Protection against scorpion stings include wearing protective footwear, especially at night; exercising caution when lifting up logs or rocks; avoiding handling scorpions or sleeping on the ground; shaking out footwear, clothing and bedding before use and learning to distinguish the highly venomous, thick-tailed scorpions from the more benign, slender-tailed ones. First aid treatment involves the immediate immobilization of an affected limb and the application of a cold (ice) compress to the sting site, cleaning the sting site and taking a strong analgesic such as paracetomol before seeking medical assistance. Do not use traditional remedies such as incisions, suction, tourniquets, alcohol, antihistamines, steroids, ointments, barbiturates, opiates or morphine derivatives. Do not administer anti-venom if no severe symptoms such as acute pain, swelling, respiratory problems, cramps, muscular pains, uncontrollable limb movements, difficulty in swallowing and numbness are present. Spider and snake-bite anti-venoms should never be given for the victims of a scorpion sting. When the venom has been sprayed into the eyes they should be washed out thoroughly with clean water or another neutral liquid such as milk. Tetanus injections are advisable.

 

References:

Anon. 2011. The deadliest scorpions species. http://www.worldmustbcrazy.com/2011/01/deadliest-scorpions-species.html

Anon 2012. Scorpion. http://www.khandro.net/animal_scorpion.htm

Anon 2012. 5 Most poisonous scorpions of the world. http://www.blindloop.com/index.php/2012/01/5-most-poisonous-scorpions-of-the-world/

Anon 2012. Arachnid. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arachnid

Anon 2012. Scorpion. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scorpion

Larsen, N 2012. Scorpion stings and venoms. Cape Town: Biodiversity Explorer, Iziko Museums. http://www.biodiversityexplorer.org/arachnids/scorpions/stings_and_venoms.htm

Leeming, J 2003. Scorpions of southern Africa. Cape Town: Struik.

Royal Society of Biology Letters online 2007. http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2007-11/yu-3sf112107.php

article by: Prof J du P Bothma

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