The analogy of scorpions in a bottle is perhaps most politically famous for its utility in explaining the dynamics of a nuclear standoff. Physicist Robert Oppenheimer famously invoked it in his 1953 warning: The United States and the Soviet Union, he wrote, each with weapons of unprecedented destructive power, were capable of destroying the other but only at the risk of their own lives. Lately, it’s bubbled up again to characterize not just the situation with North Korea.
It has also been used to characterize the current atmosphere of the White House. (On PBS, David Brooks even suggested that the people who work there buy into it.)
Sure, it’s frightening to realize that the people tasked with diffusing international crises might be facing equally risky cage matches at home. But let’s ignore, for a moment, that terrifying fact to focus on a more distracting and delightful aside—the metaphor’s scientific inaccuracy. To be clear: Bottling scorpions is a bad move. It’s no one’s idea of good staff selection or allocation of office space. But it’s also an unlikely situation; scorpions would scuttle away from group confinement as fast as their eight legs could carry them. The smallish stinging creature prefers the solitude of their own burrow, or a crevice between rocks. If you were to manage the bottle maneuver with, perhaps, a wager on the winner, though, Lorenzo Prendini advises putting your money on the one with the biggest pincers. As Prendini, curator of arachida and myripodia at the American Museum of Natural History, pictures the conflict, the heavy-clawed scorpion would slash the smaller ones in half before either could deploy its venom.
Beyond being unlikely, the metaphor also shows insufficient respect for these astonishingly successful creatures, who have survived here on Earth for more than 400 million years. (Real scorpions, by the way, with a low metabolic rate and tolerance of extreme heat, have a high level of resistance to radioactivity.)
I’m not saying scorpions aren’t dangerous. Prendini figures that he has been stung countless times—first around the age of 10 in his native South Africa and then in the 30 or so countries where he has been collecting specimens. Most, he reports, feel about as painful as a bee sting. He is one of a handful of scientists working to understand the evolution and correct classifications of scorpion species. (Note at the museum website: “Please contact Dr. Prendini if you are interested in borrowing arachnida.” And who wouldn’t be?)
Though most of his stings have been bee-grade, Prendini is respectful—he knows the animals he studies are “built to kill.” What they kill, either by crushing or stinging, is small living prey—insects, centipedes, millipedes, spiders, and other arthropods. Every one of the 1,500 or so known scorpion species is venomous, but only 25 species, all in the family Buthidae, can inflict a sting fatal to a human being. One of those, the Arizona bark scorpion lives in the deserts of the Southwest U.S. and Northern Mexico. Its sting causes intense pain, sometimes; respiratory paralysis; and, very rarely, death. Children and people who are allergic or ill are more vulnerable. While most scorpions burrow, the bark scorpions climb; a house looks like a tree to them, so they scuttle up and then fall from walls and ceiling, which has to be disconcerting.
We need to learn to say venomous not poisonous. Poisonous would be a scorpion that killed you when you ate it. A surprising number of people happily eat fried scorpions, and some drink spirits flavored with a floating scorpion. There are also associations of people who keep scorpions as pets. (There is overlap with the tarantula crowd.)
In all scorpions, the venom is carried in a shiny bulb at the end of a tail arched over the animal’s back. This stinger can be used for food-stunning or deterring predators—including coyotes, birds, lizards, and snakes. It can play a part in courtship. Also, it turns out that the alleged rule of thumb—the smaller the pincers, the more potent the venom—is not always true.
No scorpion sets out to harm a person; human beings and scorpions blunder into conflict. The animals are nearly blind, though they have between zero and 10 eyes, depending on the species, with eight being the norm. They locate prey through sensitive hairs on their legs that can detect direction and distance. We are of little interest to them—too big to eat, just giants with boots. Prendini has a preserved a West African Emperor scorpion in his office—one of the largest, at 9 inches long, it has the look of a small lobster. The sting is mild. “They are very shy,” he notes. They’re also florescent—usually blue or green—which means scorpion hunters often go at night, with a black light as their tool.
We humans exaggerate the risk of being stung and turn scorpions into mythic creatures without knowing much about their lives. The single most astonishing aspect of these armored creatures is that they can behave like mammals. They live longer than any other arachnid or insect, taking as long as seven years to become sexually mature. (In captivity, they can live up to 30 years.) Lauren Esposito, curator of arachnology at the California Academy of Sciences recently told the New York Times that her favorite fact about the creatures is that they bear live young. Gestation can be as short as two months but can last up to 18 months. (Duration depends on species but also, very sensibly, on climate and availability of food.) Elephants take longer, but scorpions out-gestate manatees, dolphins, and us, among others. And once they’re born, scorpion parents nurture their offspring.
Foreplay is long, a ritual of up to 36 hours. The male begins with a kind of Indian wrestling—grasping the female’s potentially lethal pedipalps (the formal name for its pincers). Some species “kiss”—or, more accurately, perform cheliceral massage. (Chelicerae are small clawlike structures that stick out of the mouth.) Many copulating pairs engage in a juddering movement—tap-dancing with eight or more legs.
The male may deliver a sting, perhaps to render the female more compliant and increase his chances of survival—researchers estimate that 10 to 20 percent of the time, he is eaten following the act. It may also be aphrodisiac, but how would we know? The ritual is full of acts that would seem not-so-sexy to us: When climaxing, the male expels his sperm package—a spermatophore—not into the female but onto the ground. (It sticks up, resembling a little spear with a bundle on the top.) He must then drag the female into position to pick up the precious capsule with her genital opening. In some species, the female seems very eager to conceive; she stands on her head to better absorb the contents of the spermatophore. Once it’s over, the male tries to leave quickly, for obvious reasons.
The females are good mothers, though severe. The newborns, from seven up to 100 of them, crawl up their mother’s arms and glom onto her back. In this first stage the young are pale and chubby. Some are equipped with tiny bumps resembling pacifiers that help them cling. A tender scene, reminiscent of those cute photos of opossum infants, except that in the case of scorpions, the mother eats the ones who don’t manage to clamber on.
There’s a myth that a scorpion will sting itself to death if faced with a deadly situation. The belief was tested in the late 19th century, but several scientists, persistent to a degree we can call bizarre, were unable to produce the behavior. They did manage to kill a lot of scorpions, though. (Modern scientists are still interested in scorpions but for more selfish reasons—bioprospectors seeking better painkillers think there may be a way to use a constituent of their venom to mediate transmission of pain.)
In a persistent fable involving mutual destruction, a scorpion asks a frog to carry him to the other side of the river. The frog is hesitant fearing he might be stung. No, never, says the scorpion—such an act would kill scorpion, too. As they approach the far bank the scorpion goes ahead and stings, drowning them both. Going under the envenomed frog cries, “Why?” “Because it is my nature,” says the scorpion.
The idea is that some creatures cannot be redeemed.
This, of course, is a misunderstanding of how we should conceive of them, quite parallel to our misguided use of the scorpions-in-a-bottle reference. Prendini called it “irrelevant.” Scorpions may possess only a small ganglion cluster, not impressive to human beings, who tend to be very smug about brain size. But that cluster gets the job done.
The job: survival of the species.