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NATURE HAPPENINGS - August 2005


Sign of the Scorpion
by Damian Fagan

I smile at the irony of the moment. On this moonless night the sky sparkles with the lights of far off worlds, gaseous giants and mythologies of past civilizations. In the southern sky, Scorpius the Scorpion crawls along in continual pursuit of prey, its tail held aloft in its signature curl. Though the scorpion’s stinger is poised for action, this arachnid has lost its pincers to Libra, thanks to Julius Caesar.

I see Antares, the red super giant that marks the heart of Scorpius. Though the stars shine brightly they do not throw enough light for my task at hand. Tonight, I am the hunter, the mythical Orion, hunting the dunes for Scorpius’ earthly relative.

To aid in my search I wave a small, handheld blacklight over the ground. Though one might think that I would have trouble locating a scrambling scorpion in the low light, the advantage is mine. For the blacklight will reflect off of urea stored beneath the scorpion’s exoskeleton and cast the creature in an eerie turquoise light.

Already, I have located a centipede, a Jerusalem cricket and several scorps. Out hunting, the scorpion’s diet includes a variety of insects, spiders and millipedes, as well as other scorpions.

As I continue my search I think about how these eight-legged creatures with two body sections have come to be here, for the early ancestors of these arthropods were confined to the seas that covered our planet millions of years ago.

Paleontologists believe that these aquatic ancestors began to colonize on land over 400 millions years ago. That transition from water to land being a difficult one, these creatures started out by hunting the shoreline between the high and low tide zones. Of course, other modifications such as having lungs for breathing on land were essential. So these ancestors developed lungs to compliment their gills, and protective exoskeletons to prevent desiccation once on land.

From these coastal beginnings the ancestors moved farther ashore, eventually spreading out into various habitats from forests to grasslands and moving coastal to inland. Today, scorpions are found on all continents except Antarctica. In all that time, these creatures are little changed from their primitive origins.

Though I don’t know how large a modern-day scorpion’s territory is, I assume it is not very big. The scorpions rely upon both touch and ground vibrations to navigate and hunt across their “hood”. They have eyes, but I don’t think their eyesight is exceptional. Their main sensory input is from small hairs and slits on their legs which, like a seismograph, pick up subsurface vibrations rippling outwards from a source. Able to translate these vibrations into direction and magnitude, the scorpion processes the information to determine friend or foe and to take appropriate action.

Most of the scorpions I have encountered on this warm August evening have been hunkered down in their “rest” position. With a little prodding from a grass stem, they quickly assume a defensive stance with pincers spread and tails curled. I’m sure that if they had hackles they too would be raised. After all, didn’t their ancestors once take down the mighty Orion?

For the most part, I don’t interrupt their foraging routine except to shoot some photos. I don’t worry (too much) about getting stung, for these northern or boreal scorpions deliver little more than a bee-sting type reaction. Even the larger, giant desert hairy scorpions, which I fail to locate, are not going to deliver a constellation-producing sting. I have a better chance winning the lottery than dying from a scorpion’s sting.

That is, if I was to buy a lottery ticket.

I also don’t fear treading on one, for my footfalls must register like plate tectonic-like events, inducing these small arachnids to scurry out of the way. Though on the lookout for other scorpions searching for a meal, these creatures may fall prey to pallid bats, northern grasshopper mice or certain owl species.

As I return to my vehicle, I pause to check out the celestial version of this desert dweller. Though the constellation is slipping behind the sandstone domes of Behind-the-Rocks, I can still see the brilliant Antares beating strongly in the southern sky, testimony to the perseverance of this ancient Earth and Sky dweller.
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