Popular Science Monthly/Volume 51/July 1897/Are Scorpions Matricides and Suicides?

Popular Science Monthly Volume 51 July 1897  (1897) 
Are Scorpions Matricides and Suicides? by Juan Vilaró



IT is by no means a rare thing to see a simple coincidence designated and accepted as a cause. Such is the case with the erroneous though common and deep-rooted belief that the newly born scorpions devour their mother during the first period of their life. Science has dispelled this vulgar error, as it has done away with the absurd assertions about the vegetating wasp and other species of animals.

It is a well-known fact that the little scorpions, when they come into life, place themselves at the sides and upon the back of their mother, where they remain huddled together while their transformation is being completed, or, in other words, until they change their first skins (exuviation or ecdysis).

At this moment the little scorpions break away and commence on their own hook their lively search for food, thus entering the wide field of the struggle for existence.

During this period of their life the mother may die. The difficult and hazardous process of delivery is oftentimes the cause of such death. The ants hasten to do away with the remains, and this is the origin of the common but erroneous belief that the mother has fallen a victim to the voracity of her own offspring.

As I have always been impressed by the grandeur of small things, and as phenomena of apparent insignificance are often of great importance, I resolved to find out the truth through my own experiments, with the following results:

A few years ago I introduced into a capacious flask a she scorpion with her offspring of fifty little scorpions. They lost no time in regaining their position upon the mother's back, to which they regularly returned every time they were forcibly dislodged. In order to excite the voracity of the little ones, I withdrew all food from their reach, and even mutilated one of the mother's legs. The hæmorrhage thus produced failed to give the result hoped for. The fifty little scorpions changed their

PSM V51 D411 Rock scorpion.png
Rock Scorpion.

skins and subsequently died of hunger. The mother came out unscathed. I repeated the experiment upon a later occasion, in Jamaica, placing together two different breeds upon one mother's back. The weak little scorpions died, as was to be expected, of starvation, and I vainly tried to provoke their voracity with the mother's blood.

But if science has exonerated scorpions from the horrible crime of matricide, it is by no means so clear that they are entirely deprived of the faculty of maiming themselves, and even of making attempts on their own life, an inclination which they possess in common with many other animals.

The assertion that scorpions, when surrounded by fire and deprived of all means of escape, commit suicide, was first advanced by Paracelsus. Some naturalists delare this to be a fact, while others deny it. Among the latter we may count Brehm, who, while acknowledging that the scorpion when thus tortured does sometimes commit suicide, does not believe it is intentional. "Nature," says Brehm, "has set apart man as the only being, in all creation, who under certain circumstances enjoys the dire privilege of destroying his own self." My own observations and experiments, carried out in July, 1881, at the sugar estate "Osado de Lagunillas," jurisdiction of Cardenas (Cuba), in the presence of several relatives and friends, authorize me to assert that the scorpion, after repeatedly attempting to emerge from the circle of fire by which it is surrounded, drawing its cheliform appendages toward its mouth whenever they come in contact with the fire, wounds itself with its own sting in the place called by Flourens the vital point, instantly dying.

I may add that the same experiment has been performed, with identical results, on specimens of different ages, sex, and strength by persons who are wholly deserving of my confidence.

E. Blanchard, Paul Bert, Jousset de Bellesme, and Joyeux-Laffine have studied the poisonous apparatus of the scorpion and the effects resulting therefrom.

The toxic matter is a transparent liquid of acid reaction, which dries easily, is readily dissolved in water, and insoluble in absolute alcohol and ether.

"The scorpion's poison," says Joyeux-Laffine, "is very active, although it lacks all the toxic strength which some authors have attributed to it. Its effects are directly proportionate to the quantity introduced into the system. One drop of this poison in a pure state, or even mixed with a small quantity of water, is sufficient to produce instant death when injected into the cellular tissue of a rabbit. Birds succumb to it as readily as mammals. One drop of this poison is sufficient to kill seven or eight frogs. Fish, and especially mollusks, are not so susceptible. The articulates, however, are surprisingly affected by this poison; the one hundredth part of a drop suffices to kill a good-sized crab. The flies, spiders, and insects upon which the scorpion feeds are, so to speak, fulminated by the sting of this animal."

The doctrine of multiple souls among the Calabar negroes is described by Miss Kingsley as including the notion of four souls—the soul that survives death, the shadow on the bush, the dream soul, and the bush soul. The bush soul is detachable from the body, but if damaged or killed in its wanderings the body suffers the same fate. Hence old people are held in respect, even if known to be wicked, because their bush souls must be particularly powerful and astute. The soul that survives death is liable to reincarnation either in a higher or lower form. The dream soul is the particular care of witches, who lay traps for it and return it to the owner on payment.