“Rants from the Hill” are Michael Branch’s monthly musings on life in the high country of western Nevada’s Great Basin Desert.
Our seven-year-old daughter, Caroline, is a tireless athlete, while her older sister, Hannah, is the family intellectual. This is why my wife, Eryn, and I were surprised when Caroline chose for her weeklong summer camp class “Ancient Egypt,” while her big sister also defied our expectations and decided on “Rock Climbing.” So while Hannah was learning belay knots and finger holds, little Caroline immersed herself in the culture of an ancient people who, like her, were fearless, hard-core desert dwellers. On the afternoon of her third day in camp, Caroline brought home her freshly made drawing of an Egyptian goddess whom I did not recognize.
“What is that cornucopia looking thing on top of this lady’s noggin?” I asked Caroline.
“Come on, Dad. Can’t you tell? That’s a big ol’ scorpion!” she replied with genuine enthusiasm.
“No kidding? Weird place for a scorpion. What’s her name?”
“It gets spelled different ways, but basically it is S-E-R-K-E-T. Around six or seven thousand years ago she was supposably the goddess of stings and bites. A lot of the old Egypt people thought she could protect them from scorpion stings. There was even a gold statue of her in there along with King Tut!” she explained. “Pretty epic, huh bro?”
I may have been in detention in the principal’s office during the ancient Egypt unit in my own educational past, but somehow the scorpion on the head thing struck me as improbable, especially coming from a kid whose favorite beast—one of her own invention—is “Evil Unicorn.” In addition, seven thousand sounded like too many years, even for so ancient a culture. But a little research convinced me that Caroline had her story straight, and that Serqet (or Serket, or Selket) was indeed a powerful goddess dating all the way back to the Predynastic Period of Egyptian culture, which flourished between about 5500 and 3100 BC.
As a deification of the scorpion, Serqet represented genuine power in a culture for whom lethal scorpion stings would have been a very real threat. Her full name, “Serket hetyt” contains an intriguing dual reference to the gruesome asphyxiation that can be caused by a bad sting. The name may mean “she who tightens the throat,” a reference to the toxic power of the scorpion and its representative goddess; or, Serket hetyt may mean “she who causes the throat to breathe,” which instead suggests her power to protect or restore those who might otherwise perish from a sting. The scorpion is common in ancient Egyptian art, appearing painted on pottery, carved into schist palettes, and sculpted in metal. One of the very earliest hieroglyphic signs was the scorpion ideogram, which is found written in papyrus texts, carved into ivory and wood, and chiseled into stone monuments.
The evolutionary biologist J. B. S. Haldane once observed that the Creator must have “an inordinate fondness for beetles,” because beetle species are so impressively numerous. He might well have added that the Creator seems to like scorpions a lot too. More than 1,700 species are known, and they exist on every continent except Antarctica. The fossil record is also rich in scorpions, and we know that this fascinating animal has existed in some form for around 450 million years, making it one of the oldest terrestrial invertebrates on the planet. There are scorpions in caves, in jungles, on prairies and savannahs, even high in the Andes and Himalayas. However, as the goddess Serqet reminds us, scorpions are most abundant in deserts. Of the 90 or so species in the U.S., almost all are found west of the Mississippi, and most live in the arid and semi-arid regions of the West. Here in Nevada we have something on the order of 20 species, and while some of those exist only down in Mojave country, up here in the Great Basin we have scorpions and plenty. They range from little tiny guys all the way up to the Northern Desert Hairy Scorpion (Hadrurus spadix), which can be almost six inches long—large enough to eat mice, lizards, snakes, and other scorpions.
We humans specialize in being afraid of things (and people, and ideas) that we don’t understand. While this spontaneous fear may retain some modest adaptive value, often it causes us to act like small-minded dummies and, even worse, to miss out on a lot of things that are remarkably cool. Many people would include scorpions, along with their cousins the spiders (both are arachnids and neither is an insect), in the category of “The one and only thing I know about this animal is that I’m scared of it.” Yes, it is true that all scorpions sting and that all are venomous. And, yes, they like to hide in places where they’re difficult to detect and then ambush their prey—or your foot—in a vicious attack. And, sure, they brutally crush their victim in their pinchers while stinging it with a paralyzing toxic soup of neurotoxins and enzyme inhibitors before subjecting it to a tissue-dissolving acid spray, after which they coolly slurp it up. But is this treatment any worse than what we rural westerners are subjected to by our local county commissioners? Of course young children (other than county commissioners) are at greater risk. The Mayo Clinic reports that after receiving a sting little kids may experience “convulsions, drooling, sweating, and occasionally inconsolable crying.” If this is an accurate description of symptoms, I hereby submit that all five-year-olds everywhere are being stung by scorpions all the time. I’ll allow that anyone who is allergic to scorpion venom is likely to have a rough time of it, but why malign these little arthropods when the same might be said of a damned peanut?
Actually, not many scorpions in the U.S. have a very potent sting. Southern Nevadans have to worry about the famously toxic bark scorpion, which likes to crawl up walls, hide behind framed pictures, and then creep out at night to drink your best whiskey before attacking and devouring you as you sleep. (Or something like that.) But I doubt even this fate could crack the top ten list called “Risks of Visiting Vegas.” Here in the northern desert, our scorpions all have friendly little stings that are something between a harvester ant bite and a bee sting. And since we have almost no gnats, chiggers, ticks, fleas, mosquitoes, wasps, yellow jackets, or hornets, we need something that can sting us just to keep us from getting soft.
One of the many amazing things about scorpions is that they glow in the dark. Or, to be more specific, they glow under ultraviolet light. There has been considerable debate about why a scorpion should have in common with a 1970s fuzzy poster of a ghost ship in your parents’ basement that it ignites under what stoners used to call “black light.” Some have maintained that this glow trick is a random accident of evolution, which is a theory that strikes me as unlikely and also just plain lazy. Others have wondered if the fluorescence is used to help scorpions hunt, but there’s no evidence to support this theory. Nor does it seem likely that the glow warns predators or allows communication between scorpions, though both explanations have intuitive appeal and do remain possible.
The current and most persuasive explanation for scorpion luminescence is far more incredible. Start with the fact that although scorpions have a pair of eyes on top of their cephalothorax (their “head-chest”) and another two to five pairs of eyes along the front sides of their cephalothorax, they have lousy eyesight. Or, to be more precise, they have decent sight within the blue-green spectrum and truly crappy vision outside of it. Now add to this that the main hazard of being a scorpion is that you might be spotted by moonlight (they’re nocturnal, after all) and get picked off by a predatory lizard, snake, rodent, or bird. The best way to avoid this is obviously to take cover. But how can the poor scorpion know whether it is being illuminated if its (many) eyes are unable to detect the wavelength of light that emanates from the moon and stars? It appears that their elegant solution has been to evolve a cuticle that is charged with beta-carboline and other luminescent chemicals. When the scorpion’s exoskeleton is struck by moonlight—which, as a reflection of sunlight, contains some of the same UV rays you use sunscreen to protect yourself from—it glows. In this sense the scorpion’s entire body functions as an eye, one that is highly sensitive to very small amounts of UV light. If a scorpion sees itself luminescing—which it can only because the wavelength of that luminesce falls in the blue-green spectrum—it knows that it is exposed and must seek cover. Somewhere deep in its 450-million-year-old nogginchest, the scorpion says to himself (or, to be fair to you ladies, herself): “Dang, my ass is glowing again. Better head for the sagebrush!”
The scorpion’s fabulous luminescence also means that desert rats like me can go traipsing about on moonless nights, UV flashlight in hand, looking for them. I should confess that it doesn’t take much to get me hiking around the desert in the middle of the night, but the experience of scorpion hunting is so special that I’d want to do it even if there were no wind in the sage and no stars in the sky.
Last night my buddy Steve—who, along with his wife, Cheryll, has the distinction of having been stung by scorpions—rolled up to the Ranting Hill to lead me on a land lobster expedition. It is essential that one have the proper high-tech equipment before undertaking this challenging and dangerous adventure. Please listen to me carefully, dear reader, because your life could depend upon being properly outfitted. You must have all of the following gear: a UV flashlight (ten bucks at the hardware store) and beer. To go afield lacking either could be risky.
Steve and I set out just after dusk, knowing that we had only 90 minutes before the rising of the full moon, which would flood the desert with light and send scorpions into hiding (remember the glowing ass epiphany?). It was also a breezy night, which is not ideal for a scorpion search. Because the animal stalks insects by detecting vibrations through sensory organs in the tips of its legs and specialized hairs on its pincers, wind can disturb its hunting strategy. Despite all this, it took only a minute or two for scorpions to pop out in the purple beams of our flashlights. Steve found one at the base of a native shrub I had planted a few days before. Another was by the woodpile, and a third near the girls’ treehouse. As we headed out into the open desert, we discovered others near juniper snags, around sage and bitterbrush, in the rice grass, and even out on sandy flats between patches of mule’s ears, whose dry leaves finned and scraped in the night breeze. Some of the scorpions held motionless like tiny lobsters. Others crawled along slowly. Yet others scurried with surprising speed to avoid us and tuck into their burrows, which are marked by small, arched holes in the desert floor. The scorpions glowed beautifully in otherworldly splashes of bright purple and pink beneath the UV beams as our lights tunneled through the darkness. When I looked up from one of our finds to survey the moonless sky, I noticed reddish Mars and bright, blue-white Spica unusually close to each other in the West. Hanging low in the South was Scorpio, the giant, gracefully curved constellation known since the time of the Babylonians as a scorpion. The unmistakable reddish gem of Antares (which means “rival of Mars”) shone brightly from the center of its celestial cephalothorax.
I am only slightly ashamed to admit that the high point of the evening was ogling scorpion sex. After all, this isn’t the kind of thing you see every night. Steve called me over to witness two scorpions doing what arachnophiles call the promenade à deux, which is a classy, Frenchified, non-pornographic term for the unique mating “dance” of the scorpion—an elaborate process that can take many hours and is highly ritualized. First the male grasps the female’s pedipalps (little mouth claws, like those seen in spiders) in his. Then the dude dances the lady scorpion around looking for a good place to deposit his spermatophore, the sperm packet that she will hopefully take into her genital operculum, thus triggering release of the sperm. This courtship dance can also involve “juddering,” in which the scorpions shudder and convulse, and the “cheliceral kiss,” during which the male uses his pincers to hold the female’s pincers in a gesture that looks to my human eye like holding hands. When this ritual dance is complete, the male retreats quickly, probably to avoid being gobbled up by his partner. Scorpions are ovoviparous, which means that the young are hatched within the female and only afterward born into the world. Once outside the female, the tiny scorplings will crawl onto her back and hang on there until they’ve moulted once and are ready to light out on their own.
I have neighbors who say that in many years of living out here in Silver Hills they have never seen a scorpion. In 90 minutes of night hiking, Steve and I found 80 scorpions, two of which were dancing for the future, and each of which is an amazing, glowing little packet of 450 million years of evolutionary brilliance. I find it fascinating that in all this wide, wild, windy desert, nothing glows under UV light but the scorpion. What if we had a flashlight that emitted a beam that illuminated only spiders, and another that ignited only snakes, and another that revealed only rodents—or, better yet, separate wavelengths for ground squirrels, kangaroo rats, and bushy-tailed packrats? What if we were capable of matching the mind-boggling diversity, density, and richness of life here with a mode of perception that was equally rich?
After thinking deeply about our ability (and inability) to perceive nature, Henry Thoreau concluded that “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” Those who dismiss my Great Basin landscape as “empty” may be looking at it, but they aren’t seeing it. This desert is emitting its spectacular beauty in a wavelength that their eyes have not yet evolved to detect. To say that this place is barren is simply to admit a profound ignorance that is the perceptual equivalent of blindness.
Down at the mailboxes this afternoon I told one of my fellow Silver Hillbillies about last night’s scorpion safari. “Where in the world do you find scorpions out here?” my neighbor asked.
I paused before answering. “Everywhere.”