The sting: shake out the best hunting boots and check your sleeping bag, scorpions are nothing to mess with. How dangerous are scorpions? It depends on whom you ask, apparently. As is often the case with potentially deadly animals, statistical data and summary opinions vary widely and are frequently at odds.
According to one medical review, “For every person killed by a poisonous snake, ten are killed by poisonous scorpions.”
Since venomous snakes kill an estimated 60,000 people per year worldwide, this claim hardly seems credible–unless, perhaps, it’s being applied to some very particular (and in this case, uncited) locales. Several “authoritative” articles in medical and scientific journals state that scorpions account for 1,000 deaths annually in Mexico; others say 800. Either number places in doubt another pronouncement that “worldwide, there are about 100,000 cases of scorpions [the medical term for scorpion-envenomation] resulting in approximately 800 deaths per year.” Obviously, Mexico alone has that number matched or surpassed. One report asserts there have been four human deaths by a scorpion in the USA in (presumably the previous) eleven years; several other sources claim there has not been a scorpion-related fatality in America for at least two decades.
Regardless of the wrong or conflicting mortality stats, it is safe to say that worldwide, scorpions do sting a lot of people. (In Arizona alone, physicians reported 1,573 cases during a ten-month period.) However, even outside the USA, the death rate from these strings is small: about 1 percent of otherwise healthy adults. Small children and the infirm elderly are much more vulnerable, with a 4 percent mortality under medical care. (Actual death rates are probably higher overall since in so-called undeveloped regions many scorpion sting victims don’t receive professional aid, and often their plight never makes the official record.)
Despite the comparatively small risk of death-by-scorpion, hunters should be aware of these stinging creatures since they are widely distributed around the globe, sometimes in surprising places. And while you probably won’t die from a scorpion sting, it could make you very ill, or at the very least incapacitated enough to hamper or ruin a hunt.
Though scorpions are typically associated with desert environments, they occur in a full gamut of habitats, including grasslands, deciduous forests, mountain pine woods, rain forests, and even intertidal zones and dark caves. Some have been found beneath the snow at 12,000 feet in the Himalayas. Technically scorpions are arachnids, belonging to the same taxonomic class as spiders and ticks. One African species grows to as large as eight inches, and the largest American variety (giant desert hairy scorpions) attain five inches. Thankfully, neither of these big brutes contains lethal (to humans) venom. Most scorpions are much smaller, measuring one to three inches.
Know Better about the Scorpions
Of the 1,400 or so recognized species worldwide, only about thirty have potentially lethal venom. In the USA, the single type in this category is the bark scorpion (Centruroidesexilicauda), found in southeastern California, Arizona, Nevada, southern Utah, and southwestern New Mexico. It’s also common in northern Mexico and throughout the Baja Peninsula. Bark scorpions, averaging one to three inches long, are found under rocks, logs, and other surface objects, and since they are able climbers, also in crevices of tree bark, fence posts, walls, thatched roofs and ceilings, and a variety of other structures. They are commonly encountered in houses, unfortunately. Stings can be acutely painful–and much worse, as will be detailed later.
All but one of the potentially lethal scorpions worldwide belong to the Buthidae family. These are recognizable by a triangular-shaped under-chest (as opposed to a flatter, pentagonal sternum in the other, non-lethal families). They also tend to have thin, weak-looking “arms” and pincers. According to some sources, a thick tail is another clue to deadliness. While this is true for certain species (such as the black, really nasty-looking Parabuthus of Southern Africa and particularly Zimbabwe), the American bark scorpion disproves the rule, generally sporting a thin, whip-like tail.
Scorpions are not aggressive to humans. Most stings are defensive and accidental. The scorpion is stepped on, leaned against, rolled over on, or inadvertently grabbed. Often the contact is a result of the scorpion’s habit of crawling into dark places–a pile of firewood, an empty boot, a sleeping bag, or item of clothing. Many stings occur when an unseen scorpion, indoors or out, treads upon with a bare foot. This is especially likely at night when the animals are most active and hardest to see and avoid.
Prevention is largely a matter of obviating these common scenarios. Don’t leave footwear, clothing, towels, or sleeping bags lying on the ground. If items must be unattended–such as boots overnight–shake them out and inspect them before use. In known scorpion country, be careful where you sit or lean; check surfaces before contacting them with any part of your body. Wear shoes indoors and outside after dark, and use gloves when handling or gathering firewood, moving stones, or doing similar work. Seal off entrances of any kind to a dwelling, whether tent, cabin or hurt. (Especially cracks in the wall, tears in screens, openings in loose-fitting doors or windows.) Sleep off of the ground whenever possible, and if you must sleep under a thatched roof, use mosquito netting to catch and deflect scorpions–and other noxious “bugs”–that can fall from the ceiling. (It happens.) In high-risk areas and for permanent camps consider using a portable black light at night to survey for scorpions, which glow brightly under an ultraviolet beam, making them easy to locate and remove (carefully).
If despite these precautions, you do get stung, there’s no need to panic. Most species are non-lethal and will cause pain (sometimes severe) but no systemic reaction–often comparable to the non-allergic sting of a wasp or hornet. Apply ice or a cold compress to the site while keeping it immobilized. An analgesic such as Tylenol (acetaminophen), aspirin, or naproxen can help control the pain.
With lethal species, the initial reaction might be similar to a less dangerous sting, but will quickly or eventually progress to more severe symptoms. Scorpion venom is a mixed brew that can have a broad range of effects, varying considerably from person to person. More serious reactions include a burning sensation in the hands, feet, and face, involuntary eye movements, tremors, lack of muscle coordination, rapid heartbeat, difficulty swallowing, “foaming at the mouth” or excessive salivation, headache, nausea and vomiting, restlessness and anxiety, and difficulty breathing. If a stung person has any of these symptoms–or if the scorpion is known to be of the lethal variety, important that person should get professional medical aid as soon as possible. Careful mo unit necessary because another tricky aspect of scorpion venom is that can take hours, even a day or more, to reach full systemic impact. In worst-case situations, the result is death by respiratory failure.
Again, though, it’s worth reemphasizing that scorpion-caused fatalities are rare in adults, especially those who receive proper medical care. Thanks to modern antivenins, even the most severe reactions can usually be reversed. That being said, however, have no doubt that a scorpion sting can be a nasty experience, one well worth the effort of avoiding in the first place.
Tony Lohman is an expert in hunting and outdoor activities. You can go to his website to read more detailed tips, tricks that can help you survival in the wildness.