According to Natalie Angier, in her book “The Beauty of the Beastly,” scorpions deserve multiple entries in the Guinness Book of Records; they are some of the biggest, meanest, longest-lived, most sensitive, most maternal, least fraternal, slowest and quickest creatures among the arachnids and insects.

They also have the ability to glow under ultraviolet light. Their exoskeleton is made of a tough layer of tissue composed of a cuticle protein, chitin. This coat reflects the ultraviolet rays from moonlight and other light sources so brightly that even a black scorpion will be a fluorescent shade of green or pink. Fossilized scorpions from 300 million years ago still gleam brilliantly with exposure to ultraviolet light.

The glow may have evolved to attract insects. A scorpion is equipped with venom contained in a gland on the back of its tail, which the animal can whip forward in a fraction of a second to sting a victim, sometimes repeatedly. The venom comprises up to 30 neurotoxins, each designed to kill a different kind of prey – some kill insects; others are best at paralyzing frogs, lizards or other small vertebrates.

Scorpions, like scores of other species, evolved venom as a tool for defense and predation. Often, a scorpion's venom will develop in response to specific adaptations in their predators or prey, triggering a spiraling co-evolutionary process that produces more lethal venom in the scorpions and more robust resistances in their enemies.

Scorpions have eight legs and two body segments: the cephalothorax and the abdomen. They develop through successive stages, starting with eggs that hatch miniature versions of the adults that molt and grow in size. Their speed of growth and development varies.

Scorpions are hardy and have been around for hundreds of millions of years. Assuming they avoid being consumed by owls, bats, snakes and other animals, they have the potential to live 20 years and beyond, longer than any other known arachnid or insect. Contributing to the scorpion's longevity is its exceeding low metabolic rate, which is slower than that of any other invertebrate. Creatures with slow metabolisms generally live far longer than those that burn energy at a rapid clip.

Scorpions are also one of the most feared arachnids and closely related to spiders, mites and ticks. They can be found at every corner of the globe and on six of the seven continents, from the southern tip of South America to the arid expanse of the Sahara desert.

There is reason to be afraid of scorpions: Their venom can kill you or send you to the emergency room. However, of the more than 2,200 species of scorpion, only about 30 of them might hospitalize you and, of those, symptoms vary based on age and health of the victim. Most of the really harmful scorpions, the types that induce symptoms that could be fatal if not properly treated, are distributed throughout Asia, the Middle East and Africa. There are very few in the United States but quite a few in South America, particularly Brazil.  

Surprisingly, the venom of one species may be used for a medical advantage.

Imagine an imaging agent that “lights up” or stains malignant tumors and other cancers. This “tumor paint” is derived from an Iranian species commonly called the deathstalker scorpion. It produces a toxin that targets certain brain tumors to stop their growth. The venom could potentially help surgeons resect tumors with the least amount of extraneous damage to surrounding non-cancerous tissues. Tumor painting could thus provide a new pathway for the diagnosis and treatment of tumors.

Tumor paint is being studied in gliomas, which are among the deadliest forms of cancer and are the leading cause of primary brain tumor growth. In brain tumor resection surgery, even small errors during excision can have devastating neurological consequences. Thus, newer technologies are needed that can accurately distinguish between the tumor and normal brain tissue and guide tumor resection in real time.

Recent evidence has suggested that some varieties of desert scorpions are master architects and builders. Burrows used by these species for warmth to increase their body temperature have been found to follow a very sophisticated design, beginning with a short vertical entrance shaft that flattens out a few centimeters below the surface into a horizontal platform. The burrows then turn sharply downward, descending further below the ground to form a dead-end chamber. This cool, humid chamber, where evaporation water loss is minimal, provides a refuge for the scorpions to rest during the heat of the day.

There is still much to be learned about the remarkable abilities of these frightening, carnivorous creatures.

Max Sherman is a medical writer and pharmacist retired from the medical device industry. He has taught college courses on regulatory and compliance issues at Ivy Tech, Grace College and Butler University. Sherman has an unquenchable thirst for knowledge on all levels. Eclectic Science, the title of his column, will touch on famed doctors and scientists, human senses, aging, various diseases, and little-known facts about many species, including their contributions to scientific research. He can be reached by email at maxsherman339@gmail.com.