HAPPENINGS - August 2005
Sign of the Scorpion
by Damian Fagan
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.
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.
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.
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
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.