As I picked up the t-shirt I’d just carried through the house a creature that can trace its ancestry back some 400-500 million years fell from the shirt—fortunately, before I pulled the shirt over my head. Both feared and revered, scorpions are the oldest members of the Arachnid family, related to spiders yet considered by many to be something other than insects.
Approximately 1300 species of scorpions inhabit North, Central and South America, the Caribbean, Africa, Asia, Australia, and Europe including the colder climes of Russia and some areas of the Alps. Here in the Caribbean scorpions are found on all the islands with 36 species identified in Cuba, 32 in the Dominican Republic, 11 in Jamaica, eight in Trinidad and Puerto Rico, six in the U.S. Virgin Islands—with three or fewer on the remaining Caribbean islands.
En tomologists constantly argue and revise the taxonomy of scorpions; however, it is generally accepted that terrestrial scorpions appeared about 300 million years ago and have changed very little since. Marine scorpions lived between 250 and 550 million years ago and shared many of the same traits as modern land scorpions, with the most notable exception being feathered gills. Fossils of the marine scorpions show they reached lengths of almost 10 feet.
Modern scorpions range in length from approximately half an inch to almost nine inches. They are carnivores, feeding upon insects and small rodents paralyzed with venom from their tail stingers. Scorpions’ main enemies are other scorpions and shrews. All scorpion species have two pinchers and eight legs. Their segmented bodies are divided into two parts ending with those unmistakable, upward curling, five segment tails that contains two venom sacs and are tipped with stingers, or aculeus.
Scorpions have exterior skeletons, and must molt periodically since the exoskeletons do not expand as they grow. After molting, the new skeleton is soft and requires a few days to harden. Once hardened, the exoskeletons of many species glow in the dark when a black light is shined upon them allowing scientists to locate them and others to avoid stepping on them. Some fossilized exoskeletons millions of years old have retained the glow in the dark trait when black light is present.
Since most scorpion species are nocturnal they are rarely seen but because they are nocturnal they hide in dark places during the day, including rocks, wood, and refuse piles outdoors. While indoors they may be found in drawers, dark recesses in and under cupboards and other furniture, and even shoes not to mention the occasional folded t-shirt.
Scorpions perform an elaborate mating dance wherein the male scorpion grasps the female’s claws and pulls her along the ground searching for a suitable spot to deposit his sperm. Once the sperm is deposited onto the ground the male then pulls the female over the spot to fertilize the eggs she carries in her abdomen. As soon as the eggs are fertilized the male scorpion hastily departs in order to avoid being eaten by the female.
Gestational periods vary from about three to almost 18 months and are dependent upon environmental conditions with the pregnant female delivering from 10 to 100 live young, born one at a time and quickly crawling onto the mother’s back where she carries them until they molt for the first time. Once the juveniles’ exoskeletons have hardened, they depart to live solitary lives ranging from three to 25 years.
Generally preferring to avoid human contact, when harassed or accidentally stepped on or disturbed by a hand reaching into a drawer or box, scorpions will sting. While most scorpions’ stings can be quite painful, causing irritation and sometimes numbness around the bite site, there are about 25 species whose venom is deadly, killing an estimated 1,000 to 2,000 people in Mexico alone every year.
Of the six species found in the U.S. Virgin Islands where All At Sea magazine originates, four are “thick tailed”, or Buthidae, while the other two species are Scorpionidae. Although some of the most venomous and potentially deadly scorpions are Buthidae, the species found in the U.S. Virgin Islands are not considered to be particularly dangerous. Nevertheless, any venomous creature—from bees to snakes, spiders, and scorpions—poses risks to people from bites or stings, particularly for the elderly, ill, and young.
Although scorpions are found around the world, we live in islands where our exposure to them is probably greater than some other areas and we would be well served to shake out our shoes and use caution when reaching into dark storage areas. If bitten, it is prudent to seek medical care without delay—not only to alleviate the ensuing pain but also to prevent infection.