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Tim - scorpio rising..There can't be many Aurovilians who have kept a scorpion in their bedroom (admittedly in a glass-topped box) for observation, but Tim has. He's also been stung 4 times, on different occasions, yet still prefers not to kill them. Of his co-habitation experience he says he finally had to release his 17 cms long black monster because its 'presence' was just too formidable! That, and its audible habit of shuffling around its box at night in search of prey, plus occasional attempts at escape, made it a less-than-ideal roommate, but left him full of awe for these amazing creatures.

Belonging to the spider family

Scorpions are not insects: they're a highly successful order of the spider family, with 8 legs and often up to 4 pairs of eyes. I say successful, because not only have they been around some 500 million years (from the time of Palaeophonus, a huge 2 metre sea scorpion), but they have diversified into over 1,500 species, ranging in size from 13 to 180 mm, and come equipped with remarkable characteristics. Commonly they are found under rocks or logs (and our younger Auroville kids love hunting for them), but many species also form burrows, sometimes as deep as 40 cms into the earth to keep cool and reduce the risk of predation. No fewer than 124 vertebrates and 26 invertebrates are known to prey on them, including certain monkeys, foxes, owls, shrews, lizards, spiders, crickets, beetles, ants, centipedes and other scorpions, to name but a few. Their venomous sting seems to have little effect on most such predators, though it's noteworthy that attackers often 'neutralise' them first by biting off their tail!

Feeding habits

Regarding their own feeding habits, they normally take only live prey, lying in wait in the burrow entrance or areas of open ground, or occasionally going out stalking. Some will feed by day, though the vast majority feed only at night (usually not if it's raining, or for a day or two after rain), emerging at dusk and remaining active for several hours until gorged. (As pets, incidentally, they can be overfed!). They then return to their lairs and become very quiescent, entering a sort of catatonic state in which they can even be attacked and killed by lesser creatures such as crickets. They can survive long periods between meals, from 5 days to over 2 months, though 2 weeks is probably a norm.

Prey

Scorpions catch and immobilise their prey with their pincers, after which some, though not all, use their sting to administer a 'coup de grace'. The victim is then torn open with their jaws; injected with a digestive fluid; and sucked or chewed to destruction. Prey can include insects, spiders, snails, small vertebrates, termites, lizards, frogs, young snakes and other scorpions, depending on habitat and species.

Not all are dangerous

The toxicity of scorpions varies considerably. In a few species (none in India) their sting can be deadly. The most painful of our local ones (as I've learned on 4 occasions) is the smaller, earth coloured one commonly found under stones. The huge lobster-like black one, which can hiss ominously when provoked, and is one of the world's largest scorpions, is apparently less painful. The poison, which in deadly species may be as powerful as a cobra's, is neurotoxic, and paralyses the heart and respiratory muscles of victims. The black so-called Whip Scorpion, common in Auroville during the monsoon season, is a pseudo scorpion (without sting) and not a true scorpion; likewise the fearsome, pincered, flat one often found under drain covers. Altogether there are probably no more than 3 or 4 species of scorpion in the Auroville area.

Fascinating courtship and mating ritual

One of the most fascinating characteristics of scorpions is their courtship and mating ritual. Normally this occurs on moonless nights in an area of open ground, and typically begins with a prolonged period of on-off contact, movement and juddering for up to 20 minutes. Then, suddenly, the male confronts the female face to face, seizes her pincers in his own, and begins a 'promenade deux'. Back and forth they dance and shuffle, for maybe another 10 minutes, stings raised high in the air and sometimes intertwined, gradually clearing away debris from a small area of ground. Meanwhile the male, who has no means of directly inseminating the female, lowers to the ground a sperm package. He then jerks and pulls her until she's over it, and in a quick 30-second movement she takes it up into her body. A few minutes later the male releases the female, and they go their separate ways. It all sounds quite romantic, but a more sanguine possibility behind the male's grip on the female's pincers may be that she could otherwise grab and devour him (as do female spiders and praying mantises).

Behaviour towards their young

Perhaps the most endearing quality of scorpions is their behaviour towards their young, which they bring forth alive. Unlike most arthropods, the scorpion females, who normally have just one litter of 6 to 100 (depending on species) a year, show genuine maternal association. When the mother is ready to deliver, she stands high above the ground on her 2 pairs of hind legs; forms a basket-like cradle with her 2 pairs of front legs; and catches the young as they emerge. The young then climb onto the mother's back, adopt random positions (except in one species, where they all line up nose to tail like railway wagons), and remain there for the next week or two until their first moult, after which - now able to sting - they dismount and go off alone. Except in one rare observed case the mothers don't directly feed the young, though occasionally the latter will descend from the mother's back while she's eating, take a quick snack, and re-mount!

Life span of 3 to 5 years

The young go through anything from 5 to 8 moults before reaching maturity, usually within a year, though some species can take up to 3 years. They may increase in size by anything from 20 to 40% at a moult. Once mature, no further moults occur. Life span is usually around 3 to 4 years, but in one observed species was 10 years.

If you get stung

If you happen to get yourself stung, remember it was a defensive action: scorpions will never purposely attack you, they don't want or need anything from us. Just meditate on the good they do (eating termites and other insects), and then sweat it out, or use the 'black stone' many people keep in Auroville for snake bites, or a homeopathic remedy. Left untreated, the worst ( burning sensation, severe pains) is over in 6-12 hours, and you'll feel fine - if a bit more respectful - at the end of 24 hours.

Alternatively, I'm told you can fill a bucket with water, place your cycle dynamo wires in it, and get someone to pedal while you lower your throbbing limb into the water for a neutralising shock. Somewhat to my relief, the last time I got stung and a friend of mine offered (rather too eagerly, I thought) to do this, his dynamo was rusted and it didn't work! I felt much better for the laugh we had.

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