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Scorpions: Habitat & Adaptations

Instructor: Amanda Robb

Amanda has taught high school Biology & Physics for 8 years. She received her M.Ed. from Simmon's College and M.S. from Tufts in Cellular and Molecular Physiology.

In this lesson we'll be learning about the feared world of scorpions. Although many people are cautious with these venomous animals, many are harmless to humans. Today we're going to learn about the places they live and what adaptations they need to survive.

What Are Scorpions?

Imagine going to the ocean, only to find a giant sea monster over eight feet long in the water with you. With huge pinchers and bony plates to protect its soft body, this animal is well guarded from hostile advances. It uses its claws to grab anything smaller than it at meal time, including others of its own kind. Luckily for you, this ancient sea monster is 390 million years old, a relic of ancient arthropods that once ruled the land and sea. However it has evolved much smaller relatives that are still around today called scorpions.

Scorpions aren't actually insects, but rather arachnids like spiders. They have two body segments, eight legs, and are surrounded by a tough outer covering. Their body structures are so resilient they have survived for millions of years through multiple extinctions. They are known for their pinchers and of course, venomous tail.

Habitats

Scorpions are incredibly versatile and live all over the world. Although we usually think of them living in the desert, they can be found in a variety of climates.

Desert

The desert can be punishing for living things. With little water, desert temperatures fluctuate to extremes. The desert can drop to freezing temperatures at night, with temperatures over 100 degrees Fahrenheit during the day.

Yet, the deathstalker scorpion makes a home in some of the driest regions on Earth in northern Africa. Living in Algeria and Niger through South Sudan, Ethiopia and the Middle East this desert scorpion experiences the brutal conditions of the Sahara desert. They prefer rocky areas with dirt, rather than the characteristic sand dunes. In the dry subtropical area that the desert scorpion lives, temperatures can fluctuate by 36 degrees Celsius in one day due to the desert climate.

Deathstalker scorpions live in desert habitats
dealthstalker scorpion

Forest

In the hot, humid jungles of western Africa lives the black emperor scorpion. It ranges from Senegal through the Congo and Gabon. With sleek, black bodies this is the largest of all scorpions. From head to tail it measures up to 11 inches in length and can weigh 28 grams. It lives in forest debris burrowing under fallen leaves, stream banks, and mounds of termites.

Black emperor scorpions live in the hot jungles of the Congo basin
Congo basin

Mountains

The high altitude mountains of the Andes is a difficult place for any organism to live. One species, Orobothriurus huascaran has been found at 4910 meters above sea level in Peru. That's over 16,000 feet where the effective oxygen concentration is about half of what it is at sea level. Few animals are able to survive at this altitude. But, this scorpion and others in the genus Orobothriurus manage to make a home here under rocks and in crevices.

Adaptations

Being successful in such a wide variety of environments requires a special arsenal of adaptations, or traits the help organisms survive. Scorpions have several.

Temperature

With scalding hot temperatures of the day following by freezing conditions at night in some habitats, scorpions must be resistant to temperature changes. Scientists have even frozen scorpions overnight, and watched them thaw and return to regular life the next day.

Part of being able to survive in such extreme environments involves being able to slow their metabolism down. You might have heard of people who are naturally thin having a high metabolism. This means they break down food into energy quickly, and can often eat a lot without gaining any weight. Scorpions do the opposite.

When times are tough, such as during a drought or cold spell when there is little prey, these animals use hibernation where they hunker down in a burrow and slow their metabolism. This way they need little food or oxygen to keep themselves alive. But, unlike other animals they can switch over to a normal metabolism quickly, allowing them to stalk prey as it becomes available.

Venom

Scorpions are known for their stingers filled with venom, an injectable toxin. Venom is contained in glands inside the stinger, which appears as a tail on the scorpion. Scorpion venom may contain as many as 45 different toxins in a poisonous concoction. Although this might seem frightening, only about 25 of the approximate 2,000 species of scorpion are life threatening to humans. Many scorpion bites may be painful and cause swelling in the area, but will not be fatal.

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