Thursday, September 10, 2009

The scorpion house

(A scorpion under UV light.  Would you take a shower with this critter?)

Let's go back in time a bit for this anecdote.  I find all organisms absolutely fascinating, from elephants to the malaria parasite. Their morphology, behavior, and physiology are incredible manifestations of natural selection. They are all interesting, often beautiful, and sometimes obnoxious. In my book, scorpions are one of those animals that cause immediate repulsion, with their pair of claws at the front of their brown or black body, and that ominous stinger that they hold over the body in strike readiness. For about a year, my wife and I and our three children rented a farmhouse in Monteverde, a small community in the Tilaran Mountains in Costa Rica. Months after moving there, we passed a local resident on the dirt road who asked where we lived. After describing the location to him, he immediately said without fanfare, “Oh, you live in the scorpion house.”  It turns out that the house was also home to a family of Watson's tree rats, a whistling mouse, some fruit-eating bats, and dozens of species of moths, ants, wasps, katydids, and spiders.

Of course, by that time we had already discovered the fact that the house had a healthy population of a species of black scorpion about three inches long. Why was this fact not advertised by the landlord? Why did the multiple listing book not inform us of this? Why wasn’t the house cleared of this hideous looking invertebrate by Acme Pest Control before our arrival with a 5-year old child? I guess we were not in Kansas anymore.

This stingy occupant of our home could be found almost anywhere in the house, but scorpions like to be in a dark place during the day, and then to move about after dark. We regularly checked the cushions of the sofa, our shoes, the shower curtain, bed pillows, clothes, and closets for the sneaky critters. We acquired a house cat during our stay there, and the best thing about this feline friend was his proclivity to hunt down scorpions in the house. In fact, on Christmas morning 1986, we found a freshly killed scorpion placed carefully on the white sheet beneath the tree where there were precious few gifts that year. Just what I always wanted!

But what about the biology of this 8-legged arachnid? From the DesertUSA website: “Scorpions are predatory. They often ambush their prey, lying in wait as they sense its approach. They consume all types of insects, spiders, centipedes, and other scorpions. Larger scorpions may feed on vertebrates, such as smaller lizards, snakes, and mice if they are able to subdue them. They capture their prey with their pedipalps, paralyzing them with their venom as well if necessary. The immobilized prey is then subjected to an acid spray that dissolves the tissues, allowing the scorpion to suck up the remains”.  Sounds just great.

Scorpions often appeared at night and would crawl on the wooden ceiling or open rafters of this rustic house. One night, my wife and I retired to bed, turned off the light, gave each other a kiss, and then turned our heads in opposite directions to settle in for the night. At that very instant, I felt a light “thump” on the pillow between our heads, in the exact location where we had kissed about 10 seconds before. I just knew from the heft of the thump, what it had to be.  I jumped out of bed, turned on the light, flipped up the pillow, and there was a large scorpion that had already hidden itself beneath the cushiony refuge. I was happy it had not fallen from the ceiling a few seconds earlier. Damn, this is disturbing.

Several weeks later I was taking a shower. I always checked the shower stall thoroughly just to make sure that it was free of “friends”. All clear. I started the water, shampooed my head, and while I was scrubbing away with my eyes closed due to the soap, I felt something crawling up my leg. You guessed it, and I knew it again. I opened my eyes to see the forward progress of a large scorpion, now at knee level and moving rapidly. Another 18 inches higher and this thing would be in DrTom's "no-fly zone".  The scorpion must have been in the drain, and when the water began to flow, it crawled out of the drain and up the nearest vertical structure, which was my left leg. I flicked it off quickly. Geez, is nothing sacred?

During all these close calls, only my wife ever got stung. She was folding clean clothes and patted a scorpion she did not see. The sting is much like a wasp sting, but has a burning sensation that lasts for several hours. Other scorpion species in Arizona and New Mexico are apparently more toxic than this Costa Rican relative. About 10 years after we returned to the states, I visited friends who were living in the scorpion house in Monteverde. In the morning, I put on my jeans hastily and was immediately stung on the inside of my thigh. I ripped off the pants, which I had left on the floor overnight, to find a scorpion inside the leg. I had forgotten what had become a daily routine when we lived there—the vigorous shake of the clothes before you put them on.

I often say that bad memories are better than no memories at all. I am, of course, overstating the case, because our year in Monteverde was truly magical, and it changed our family forever in many ways. But I can do without the daily vigilance that comes with living with an unwanted guest that can inflict pain. Now, when a mosquito or black fly lands on my arm in upstate New York, I look down at the puny wimp and think to myself, “You’re nothin”.