There are over 2,500 species of scorpions inhabiting some of the harshest climates on the planet, and they all have one thing in common: they’re super creepy.
Like other arachnids, scorpions scuttle their shiny exoskeleton along on their four sets of legs, brandishing their venomous tail like some kind of demented merengue dancer.
And while there is great diversity amongst the different scorpion species, they share many adaptations that have allowed them to survive since the dinosaurs roamed the earth.
What Is a Scorpion?
Although scorpions are technically arachnids, they look more like land lobsters that have angry, venomous tails. Like other arachnids, they have eight legs used primarily for walking and digging.
Their legs are covered in delicate bristles or proprioceptors, which allow them to have a finely honed sense of touch. They use these proprioceptors to sense tiny ground vibrations and even the disturbance in the air from flying insects.
Their bodies are divided into three parts: the cephalothorax (or prosoma), the mesosoma, and the metasoma. The mesosoma and metasoma together form the opisthosoma or the abdomen.
To simplify things quickly: the prosoma is the front end of the scorpion. The first segment has chelicerae, the fancy word for the little pincers we would think of as a mouth, which they use to hold and “chew” their food. (More on that later.)
The second segment holds the pedipalps — the impressive and terrifying pincers that would equate to their hands if they were human. Then the next three segments hold their skinny legs.
In case scorpions weren’t scary enough, they have between two and five pairs of eyes all along the ventral side of their cephalothorax. The central pair of eyes on the top of their prosoma are super light-sensitive but unable to form very clear images.
The mesosoma houses most of the organs. The lungs of the scorpion called “book lungs,” are made up of openings or “spiracles,” which come in different shapes depending on the species of scorpion. They function like an accordion, taking in air when relaxed and expelling air when contracted.
Also in the mesosoma is the scorpion’s heart, or dorsal vessel (because open circulatory systems function differently than ours), and their reproductive system.
The metasoma is the scorpion’s tail, which is pretty unique. Some species of scorpion have light receptors in their tail along with their anus, so you could say they “see” with their butt.
But more importantly, the tail is the home of the vesicle, which contains a symmetrical pair of venom glands. These secrete venom through the stinger and into its unfortunate victim.
Evolution of Scorpions
Scorpions have been around seemingly forever, with many fossils originating from 420 million years ago. The oldest, Dolichophonus loudonensis, was found in Scotland, of all places.
Scientists are undecided whether the oldest scorpion species were marine dwelling or terrestrial — as different aspects of their morphology point to different answers –and some conjecture that they may have been the first animals to move from water to land millions of years ago.
While their appearance hasn’t changed much (unfortunately), most species used to be about twice the size of modern scorpions.
Scorpions belong to the Arthropoda phylum in the subphylum Chelicerata, so they are closely related to critters like horseshoe crabs and sea spiders. They are part of the clade Arachnida, which you’ll recognize as the same one spiders belong to.
To break it down further, Arachnida is divided into two categories: the pulmonates (i.e.: the ones with lungs) and the non-pulmonates (without lungs). Scorpions, spiders, and whip scorpions are all pulmonate Arachnids.
Scorpions are usually pretty easy to identify. They are arthropods with eight segmented legs, two big, grasping pincers in front, and a menacing barbed tail that curves over their back.
They look like land-dwelling lobsters, but we don’t recommend boiling them and enjoying them with butter, especially because their average size is about 6 centimeters long.
Most people assume that scorpions live in the desert — and many do — but they are found on all continents except Antarctica, living in almost every type of habitat except for the subarctic climates like the tundra, high-altitude taiga, and mountain tops.
Most scorpions live in the desert, but they also populate mountains, grasslands, caves, and intertidal zones. (And when I lived in Tucson, Arizona, they really enjoyed living in my kitchen cabinets. Ugh.)
Scorpions prefer to live in burrows that they dig themselves, so they exist in any habitats where the ground isn’t frozen or too hard to dig into. However, they can climb really well, so they are sometimes found in trees or rock crevices as well.
What Do Scorpions Eat?
Scorpions primarily eat other insects, spiders, and sometimes small mammals, frogs, or lizards. Their preferred prey item usually depends on how big the scorpion is itself.
Their method of ingestion is, shall we say, highly unappetizing. A scorpion’s mouth is teeny tiny, such that it can only eat something once it’s been liquified.
So, they mash up their prey with their chelicerae and then hold it in their pre-oral cavity, where they then essentially barf up digestive juices from their gut all over their food so it can start disintegrating.
Then, they suck it up as if through a straw, filtering out undigestible materials (like their prey’s exoskeleton) that get ejected when they’re done.
Although this sounds disgusting, scorpions are slow but highly efficient eaters: they consume relatively large amounts of food during one meal that can sustain their bodies for long periods of time.
In fact, their metabolism is so slow that some species can go for a whole year without eating (as long as they have water.) Usually, though, scorpions prefer to find a meal every two or three weeks.
When scorpions hunt, they usually wait by their burrow with those pedipalps (pincers) wide open and stinger raised, ready to pounce on unsuspecting prey. Other scorpion species forage for their prey, and a few species even dig pitfall traps in the sand!
Most species of scorpions have highly sensitive hairs on their pedipalps that can pinpoint and snatch an insect in flight, which they would crush before consuming.
They usually try not to use their stinger unless they have to because it requires a lot of energy to reload. That’s why younger and smaller scorpions sting more often: they’re inexperienced.
Scorpions also take advantage of their eyes, which are able to see in extremely low light. They are mostly nocturnal, giving them the advantage over other animals who can’t see as well in starlight as they do.
Death Rate Due to Scorpion
Although most scorpion species don’t pose a threat to people, sometimes envenomation can be a life-threatening emergency. Variables such as the location of the sting, the species of scorpion, the quantity of venom, and the age of the victim play a big role in determining the severity.
Most lethal scorpion stings occur in the northern Sahara, the southern and eastern regions of Africa, the Middle East, South India, Mexico, and South America — especially in areas that lack access to adequate medical care.
There are an estimated 1.2 million reported cases of people getting stung by scorpions annually, with only about 3,000 of those resulting in a fatality.
Scorpion Survival Skills
Many species of scorpions can survive in harsh habitats because they are well adapted to do so. They are designed to cope with prey scarcity that would kill other animals.
They are opportunistic eaters and will feed on anything, but more importantly, they can slow their metabolism to almost one-third of the typical rate for arthropods. That means they can live on very little oxygen and food: as little as one insect per year will sustain them if needed.
And unlike other animals who hibernate to conserve energy, scorpions are able to spring into action at a moment’s notice if prey happens to pass by.
They’re also super resilient to extreme temperature fluctuations. In a particularly cruel study, scientists froze scorpions overnight only to watch them walk away as if nothing happened once they thawed out in the morning.
They have also adapted to survive with very little water. Their waste processes don’t require water to excrete, and some desert scorpions have unique adaptations allowing them to absorb water through the soil. Scorpio Maurus and Hadrurus Arizonensis can live in temperatures up to 45-50 °C (113–122 °F) if properly hydrated.
The vast majority of scorpions prefer to live in burrows, which gives them shelter to hide from the hot midday sun and avoid their predators.
Their main predators include frogs, lizards, snakes, birds, and mammals like meerkats and mongoose, who have developed resistance to their venom. Scorpions are also prey for centipedes, shrews, owls, bats, hornbills, and coyotes.
Because they’d prefer to avoid using their stinger, scorpions will assume a defensive posture when threatened, raising their claws and tail into the air in the hopes of scaring off their predators. Some species are also known for rubbing parts of their body together to make a sound — like cricket does — as a deterrent as well.
Did you know that scorpions glow a bright bluish-green when you shine a black light on them? They’re like little living glow sticks.
They have fluorescent chemicals in their cuticle, which react to certain wavelengths of ultraviolet light. So, if you live in areas with a lot of scorpions, it’s easy to go out at night with a hand-held black light and spot them scurrying around.
Scorpions have an elaborate — dare we say “cute?” — courtship ritual that usually occurs during the warmer months in late spring through early fall. Male scorpions will travel far and wide, following pheromone trails of receptive females. Once they find one, they dance.
The male grasps the female by the pedipalps, and then they do a promenade à deux (literally: a walk for two) for up to several hours. Sometimes they’ll raise their metasomas over their back and touch them to each other, like tango dancers. Ok, so maybe we’re romanticizing this a bit.
He grabs her pincers, and then they walk around in circles together, trying to find a suitable smooth surface so he can deposit his packet of sperm, called a spermatophore. He then encourages the female to scoot over the packet, which she shoves into her genital opening, where it will fertilize. (Romance is now dead.)
If he’s smart, the male will flee after the courtship is over because female scorpions get hungry after mating and are prone to eating their erstwhile partner.
Once fertilization occurs, the eggs are retained in the female’s body, where the embryos are nourished in utero. Female scorpions give birth to live young two- to eighteen months after mating, depending on the species.
A typical scorpion litter averages 25 young, but some species can have broods of up to 100. (That’s nightmare material.)
When they’re born, young scorpions are white. The defenseless offspring crawl onto their mother’s body, where they use a sucker to hang on and absorb nutrients until their first molt. The scorpions will then become independent, molting a few more times until reaching maturity.
Scorpions typically live for about 3-5 years, although some other species have been known to live for as long as 15 years.
Scorpion Relationship With Humans
Given below is an overview of the relationship humans have had with scorpions.
A scorpion’s sting may have as many as 45 different toxins, which by design have varying effects on different prey.
Because their sting is usually reserved for larger prey or defense from predators, their first sting is more powerful than any subsequent stings they deliver. The first sting is usually strong enough to stun the victim; later stings tend to be milder.
Keeping that in mind, while all scorpions have venom, only about 25 species – most in the family Buthidae — are considered life-threatening to humans.
For most people, scorpion stings are similar to any other insects, so if you’ve been stung by a wasp, you get a general idea: it’s painful but not dangerous unless you have an allergic reaction.
Thankfully, they usually only sting in self-defense, like if they’re hiding in a shoe that someone then tries to wear. (That’s why if you live in Southwestern Arizona, you develop a healthy habit of shaking out your shoes and gloves before you put them on. That’s a lesson you don’t need to be taught twice.)
Use in Medicine
The belief that scorpions have medicinal properties has existed for centuries, and many indigenous or traditional medical practices have utilized them to varying degrees of success.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, for example, the entire Buthus Martensii Karsch scorpion is ground up and used to treat spasms, convulsions, and pain. In terms of modern medicine, however, scorpions are not currently being used in any approved applications. Research is being conducted, though, into the efficacy of using their venom for antimalarial, antimicrobial, and anticancer properties.
Use as Food
Scorpions are popular as street food in Asia, West Africa, Thailand, and Myanmar.
They are usually roasted, fried, or grilled, in which case exposure to heat negates the harmful components of their toxins. Some daredevils will eat them while still alive, but we definitely don’t recommend that!
Kept as Pets
We try not to “yuck someone’s yum” here at World Animal Foundation, but we don’t really understand the appeal of keeping scorpions as pets.
Yes, they are relatively low-maintenance to keep — similar to having pet lizards or snakes with certain requirements for temperature and humidity regulation — but what do people get out of it?
Regardless, it’s actually pretty popular to have a pet scorpion, enough that the pet trade has threatened wild populations of some species, particularly Androctonus australis and Pandinus imperator, or Emperor scorpions.
Scorpions are symbolic animals in many cultures and mythologies from all over the planet. In the Middle East, the scorpion is both an embodiment of evil and a protective force, as well as a representation of human sexuality. Most familiarly, the scorpion is one of the 12 signs of the zodiac, represented by the constellation Scorpius.
In the accompanying Greek mythology, a scorpion was sent to fight Orion (he of the famous belt), who had bragged that he would kill all the animals in the world. Because of their animosity, their constellations were placed on opposite sides of the world.
In ancient Egypt — a place rife with scorpions– the goddess Serket protected the Pharoah by taking the form of a giant black scorpion. The goddess Isis was also linked with scorpions as a symbol of a mother’s devotion.
A famous Russian fable about a scorpion and a frog crossing a river illustrates the belief that people will always be true to their nature, regardless of whether their actions are in their best interests.
Ok, so we’ll admit it: scorpions kinda grow on you.
The more you learn about the Order Scorpiones, the more you can admire their menacing features and cool adaptations that have allowed them to live in so many places.