Monday, November 1, 2010

Beasts for the bedridden

"The universe contains any amount of horrible ways to be woken up...

A dog's wet nose is not strictly speaking the worst of the bunch, but it has its own peculiar dreadfulness which connoisseurs of the ghastly and dog owners everywhere have come to know and dread. It's like having a small piece of defrosting liver pressed lovingly against you."

Terry Pratchett (Moving Pictures)

This quote holds particular significance for me this week because I spent the better part of it in bed, fighting off the horrible ravages of malaria (you're allowed to use phrases like 'horrible ravages' when you've got a bona fide tropical illness).

It's only been 'the better part' because of the regular intervention of the aforesaid noses. Oh, and don't let's forget cats' whiskers; equally unnerving when pressed into the face of a sleeper.

Of course their eyes are reproachful:  you know it's time to let us out...  feed us breakfast...  refill our water bowl...  turn on the air conditioner...  clean out the litter tray...  take us walking...  prepare our dinners...  shut the leopards out...

They've watched with deep concern as I trembled and shook, coughed and spluttered and fed-the-fishes (a phrase that's not as euphemistic as I'd like, given the state of the house's plumbing). Being cynical (a consequence of the illness, I'm sure), I couldn't decide whether they were genuinely worried about me or simply monitoring symptoms indicative of their continued neglect. But on Friday I decided it WAS true love. When I ate my first meal for four days, I had an utterly transfixed and joyous audience; and no one tried to beg a thing!

Being bedridden restricts one's wildlife encounters, so I thought I'd write a nice gentle post about the vervet monkeys who hang out in the trees beside my bedroom window. I love these little guys, silvery-furred and lithe, they're like wood sprites or dryads as they dance through the foliage. But my contemplative mammal post was not to be. The local wildlife came inside.

On Thursday night I was just drifting off to sleep - in a semi-drugged daze - when I felt something brush against my thigh. Magic's tail, I wondered? Tentatively I reached down and felt about a bit: no tail. Magic was lying too far away. Since our recent serpent-visitations, we've all been a little paranoid (Wobbly Cat still hasn't placed a paw outside and Magic won't sleep there), so I decided miserably I'd better wake up and check it out. I groped sleepily for my torch and shone the wavering beam toward my feet.

Within seconds I was out of bed.

There was a large black scorpion crouched among the sheets.
It was about 12 cm (5") long with a huge armoured tail upraised threateningly over its back.

Oh, S#%*T!

It wasn't just any scorpion, it was a Parabuthus transvaalicus, one of the most lethal scorpions in southern Africa.

ISN'T MALARIA ENOUGH? I thought in anguish.

Parabuthus transvaalicus grows to 15 cm (6") long. But size isn't what counts. As a rule of thumb (although it's best to keep them out of the way), your scorpion-related panic can be accurately tuned by examining the beasty's body bits. Scorpions with whopping pincers live hand to mouth, so to speak, crushing their prey to death, and so they have wimpy tails and weak venom. But scorpions (like this one) with petite little pincers kill with their sting (both prey and those that piss them off) so they have hefty tails that produce lots of lethal venom.

Trying to ignore my throbbing headache, I began bundling the pets out of the room.
Fleetingly I considered taking a photo, but thought 'To hell with the blog'. (Forgive me, dear reader, but I'm sure it was the wicked malady speaking, and I also remembered I'd taken a few shots of a dead specimen in the garden last August.)

Wielding a plastic drinking cup, I rumpled the sheets behind the scorpion and it obligingly trundled into the cup. Then, while stuffing a blanket over the beaker, I fumbled it and the scorpion scuttled out again. Not good. I should probably point out, at this stage, that this species doesn't just sting like normal scorpions, it can also spray it's venom for distances of about one metre/yard. Thankfully, it didn't. My second attempt was more successful, and despite a few nervous moments, trying to keep the lid on the cup with my chin while unlocking the back door, the release went smoothly.

While I'm not keen on scorpions, I have to admit their interesting little guys; especially when it comes to romance.
After following the trail of his true love's pheromones, the smitten male performs a little tap dance, juddering his body, tapping his pincers or wagging his tail (depending on his species). His lady detects these 'love vibes' through highly sensitive hairs on her feet and body, and sensibly curbs her predatory inclinations. Next the couple embrace, lovingly locking pincers or - more intimately - mouth parts. The male then whisks his sweetheart into a waltz (lasting 5 to 30 minutes), fanning out his pectines (fluffy sensory combs on his stomach that feel the ground) in search of the ideal place to consummate their love. The dance only halts when he finds a smooth hard surface. Here he deposits his spermataphore: a little package of sperm that's sticky on the bottom and hooked at the top. Once it's stuck firm, he helps his paramour move above it; they have to get the position just so, because the hook on the spermataphore must catch and pull open the covering of her genital opening. Ain't Nature grand!

While this is the end of the story for the male, the female's destined to a 2 to 18 month pregnancy (depending on her species). She then gives birth to live young, a feat virtually unheard of among arachnids. Withdrawing to the safety of a burrow or shelter, she arches her tail over her back and places her front two pairs of legs beneath her genital opening to create a birth basket for the emerging babies. She then helps the newborns (tiny, but pale and soft, versions of the adult) clamber up on to her back. Here they remain, safe and snug, (while she forgoes foraging) for their first 9-14 days.

Parabuthus transvaalicus' monstrous tail churns out large quantities of neurotoxin (drop for drop as potent as any snake's). It causes severe pain, muscular cramps, uncontrolled limb movements, numbness, difficulty breathing and swallowing and death by respiratory failure (depending on the victim's body size and health- yikes!). To be fair, the species also uses its tail to excavate burrows, and to sing. Metaphorically. It emits a 'chick-chick' sound by rubbing its sting against the roughened surface of its second tail segment. Oh, and those spiffy hairs detect the air vibrations generated by hapless prey.

Sharing a bed with a scorpion is not my idea of fun, especially when I'm already feeling under the weather. But my sense of persecution evaporated instantly when I read the latest blog post by the hyena researchers  in the Masai Mara Reserve in Kenya. Oh my! I urge you to check out  what intruded on their sleep this week. Your life will suddenly seem so much better!


  1. Oh Dear, I'm so sorry to hear you are that plagued by Malaria and I hope you'll fully recover, fast. What concerns me most is that you're all on your own there. Sending you loads of recovery hugs!!!!
    As I understood properly you've even touched the scorpion? Good Lord! I'm wondering who of you both was scared at most, and great luck he doesn't attack you.
    They are such awesome little creatures, though, and I so love what and how you wrote about them. All your posts are full of love, dedication and respect to the nature's beings, no matter, how dangerous they are. Five Stars for bringing him out again. Question: where and how far did you bring him, actually???
    Next five Stars for the cat photo!!!! What a beauty! To be at service for a bunch of reproachful eyes and whiskers in my nostrils is something I never want to miss :-)
    The Masai Mara event was really exceptional. Being involved that close into interacting wildlife without anybody got hurt is a miracle. From my point of view (from behind my desk, and again, as nobody got hurt) it’s just a priceless encounter.
    So many thanks for this great post again, and take care for yourself, as good as possible, okay?

  2. Sorry to learn about your bout of malaria. I hope it does'nt plague you anymore. Those are really scary scorpion photos. I shared a bedroll with a Giant Desert Hairy Scorpion on a sand dune in Mexico. It was huge but completely harmless and meek in temperament.

  3. o
    Again, almost exhausted after reading your post. CRIPES! I am SO glad you're fine. I finally got whacked by a Californian scorpion (blogged about it, natch) and it was no big. YOURS? Wow. Seriously, I think I need more coffee to recover. One of my mentors got something tropical when on a tiny atoll in Micronesia (she's an anthropologist) and stood in the water for days, feeding the fishes and was SO thin eventually that the men on the island asked her husband why he wanted such a skinny woman. They figured out why the husband DIDN'T get sick: he drank the local alcohol with the chief. Apparently kills cooties. I hope you get better soon!

  4. Not what I would want to find in my bed. Scorpions are not exactly my favourites either, but that is perhaps because I was stung by one as a kid. Hurt like crazy, but there were no side effects.

  5. Lil_Earthwoman,
    Thanks for your concern and support. I seem to be back to normal now (or as 'normal' as I can be!).
    I don't much like scorpions (I don't think I've ever recovered from seeing buckets brimful with the things, that the workers used to bring in to the Meerkat Project for experiments, etc.). I placed my little bedfellow over the thigh-high wall at the back of my house, believing (probably erroneously) that it would act as a barrier.

    A 'giant desert hairy scorpion' sounds very impressive; I'm glad it was harmless.

    I'm feeling fine again now. Obviously I'll have to take to the grog. Maybe my fumy breath will deter the mozzies and scorpions??

    I've been stung by one (a lesser species) in bed here before so I'm a bit leery. The doctor said I should take the dog's cortisone tablets, which was something of a worry!


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