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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 54/March 1899/My Pet Scorpion

MY PET SCORPION.
By NORMAN ROBINSON.

WHEN I first came to Florida I heard terrible accounts of the deadly work of a poisonous "bug," popularly known as the "grampus" or "mule-killer."

My first informant was a "Florida cracker," who seemed fairly intelligent, and whom I had employed in a little woodcraft. He happened to encounter one of those terrible creatures, and promptly "smashed" it with his axe. On expressing regret that I had no opportunity of seeing it before it was crushed into so shapeless a mass, he gravely assured me that he "didn't take no resks on them varmints. Them's the pisenest things in Floridy. Rattlers ain't nowhar! A man what gits bit by one of them critters—no medicine can't save him! We calls 'em mule-killers, cause they's wust on mules. A hoss nor a dog don't seem to mind 'em, but a mule is done dead when one of them varmints strikes 'em."

I cross-questioned my informant a little as to his personal knowledge of the matter, and especially as to the fatal results following the bite of this very astonishing "bug." "Did you ever know," said I, "of a mule's dying from the bite of this 'mulekiller'?"

"Oh, yes, I've knowed of several, and I hearn tell of lots. Ole man Jernigan, he loss a likely mule what got struck by one of them critters, and there was a man what died down to the Johnson place, bit by one of them things. They tells me he took whisky enough to kill two men, but it didn't do him no bit of good. He was powerful fond of whisky, anyway, and he died mighty easy."

I subsequently made some inquiries in regard to these supposed casualties, and came to the conclusion that my informant's accounts of them were largely mythical. A mule had died in the neighborhood mentioned, but the "mule-killer" was colic; and in the case of the man, although he claimed to have been bitten by a "grampus," it was generally believed that the "serpent of the still" was the most deadly "varmint" he had recently encountered.

I soon found, however, that the belief in the venomous character of this "whip scorpion," or Thelyphonus giganteus, as it proved to be, was almost universal. The negroes, especially, are in mortal terror of it. Only a few days since a colored boy that I had employed in hauling wood brought me a small specimen, completely crushed, with the triumphant announcement, "I've got him, but he like to done strike me 'fore I seed him."

"But how do they bite?" I asked, "with their claws?"

"Dey don't bite at all! Dey jes' strike you with de tail, and dey's a pizen juice comes out, and den no doctor kain't save you! "

Newspaper stories confirming this belief occasionally go the rounds. I remember reading one particularly circumstantial account of the mishaps of a camping party somewhere in south Florida. "They were a long way," said this veracious chronicler," from any human habitation, and the loss of their one mule from the bite of this pestiferous scorpion brought with it no end of inconvenience and trouble."

The distressing story was told with great detail, and it was certainly not calculated to diminish the popular dread with which this supposed venomous creature is regarded. Even in scientific journals we find an occasional echo of this general belief. Dr. Packard, too, certainly good authority, in his Study of Insects accepts the current theory.

In the Proceedings of the Washington (D. C.) Entomological Society there is an interesting discussion of this very question (vol. ii, No. 2). Professor Howard stated that a case of the bite of the Thelyphonus with fatal results was vouched for by a Mr. Dunn, a professed naturalist, and that his testimony was entitled to weight. Mr. Ashmead and Mr. Banks, both of whom had been familiar with the Thelyphonus in Florida, had handled them frequently, and believed them harmless. Dr. George Marx confirmed this view by stating that dissection failed to show the presence of any poison sac or fangs, a statement which it seems has been confirmed by subsequent investigations.

Altogether here was a "muddle" of conflicting testimony, which could only be accounted for by supposing "some one had blundered."

A few months since, for my own satisfaction, I determined to make a special study of our Florida "grampus." Not the least curious question that first suggests itself is how this name, "grampus" (French, Grand poisson, great fish), one of the Cetacece, ever got tacked on as a popular label for our Florida Thelyphonus. I am utterly at a loss to account for it.

Before catching "my bird" I, of course, had to make a cage for it. This was constructed out of a large cigar box. About half of one end was removed and replaced by wire gauze. In addition to the hinged wooden cover, with which the box was furnished, I arranged a second one of wire gauze, hinged on the opposite side, and closing underneath the wooden one. This gave full control of light and air, both by day and night, without disturbing my future prisoner, and at the same time diminished the danger of his escape.

I knew very well that the scorpion I was after was of a very modest and retiring disposition, and was never seen above ground in daylight except by accident or mistake. I was also under the impression that they were becoming rather rare, as it was more than a year since I had seen one. Still, it was with the most abundant confidence, to say nothing of the more prosaic requisites of a stout pair of gloves, a paper bag, and a hoe, that I started out one afternoon to find my Thelyphonus. I directed my course to the nearest wood, not for a moment doubting that a few hours' work would bring to light the object of my search. I labored faithfully until dark, overturning rotten logs, sticks, bark, old rails, and other field and woodland débris under which my "grampus" would be likely to be hiding, but the search was altogether fruitless.

I then concluded to try a plan which I have usually found quite successful. I told some of the bright boys in town what I wanted, and offered them a liberal price for every live "grampus" they would bring, cautioning them that their bite was said to be poisonous, and at the same time instructing them exactly how to catch and handle them. This scheme was also a failure. I then asked several friends who are interested in natural history to aid me in the search. One gentleman, who is a surveyor, and who in the pursuit of his profession passes much of his time in the woods, entered with special interest into my quest. These plans were all equally barren of results.

One day, after I had practically given up the search, I was hoeing among the sprouts at the base of an old orange tree that had fallen a victim to the "big freeze" when, under a pile of chips at the base of the old stump, I suddenly unearthed my long-looked-for Thelyphonus. It was a fine, full-grown specimen, decidedly resentful at this sudden intrusion upon its privacy, and if a formidable pair of expanded claws, brandishing tail, and a generally vicious look meant anything, it was a customer that a prudent man would not care to pick up with bare hands. With the aid of a wide-mouthed preserving jar and a stick it was, however, soon secured, and in a short time transferred to the cage that had been so long waiting for its occupant.

A few words may not be amiss concerning the great family of which my little captive is not the least interesting member. The Thelyphonidæ belong to the great spider family, Arachnida, which includes not only the true spiders, but also the mites (Acarids), the ticks (Ixodes), the Tartarides, Phrynides, Phalangides, and other more or less related and mostly tropical groups. The whole subclass has certain pretty well-defined characteristics. They are almost without exception carnivorous (insectivorous). They are seldom subject to metamorphosis. The legs are usually eight in number. The eyes are always situated on the cephalo-thorax (head and breast plate), and not infrequently are the same in number as the legs. Not a few are fitted with poison sacs and fangs, and in the case of some of the larger true spiders and scorpions the venom is very virulent, and in some instances has proved fatal to human life.

As this is hardly the place for a technical description of my Thelyphonus—a female—I shall content myself with a few facts and measurements. Those who are curious as to her personal appearance can consult the accompanying photograph. Most persons will conclude that her beauty is not even "skin deep."

The following post-mortem data will perhaps aid in giving a clearer idea of this curious little creature. The length of the body from the front of the cephalo-thorax to the end of the last post-abdominal segment was fifty-two PSM V54 D628 Whip scorpion.png millimetres—a little more than two inches; the length of the tail was fifty millimetres, thus making the total length about four inches. The width of the abdomen in its widest part, near the center, was thirteen millimetres, or approximately half an inch. The claw-bearing palpi, or "feelers," which are large and very powerful, have an extreme expansion of fifty-eight millimetres, nearly two and a half inches. The tail is a curious organ, and consists of forty-four short, jointed sections of a pale wine color, with a light yellow ring at the base; a few short, scattered pointed hairs are found on each segment. It is about two thirds of a millimetre in thickness at the base and tapers to about half this diameter at the end. When alarmed, the Thelyphonus holds it curved over forward after the manner of the true scorpions; a habit that probably points to some common ancestor. Its true function appears to be that of an extra palpus or "feeler."

The Thelyphonus is generally of a wine color. In some places, as on the cephalo-thorax, this color is black; around the mouth parts, the legs, the sternal plate, and the under side of the abdomen, this wine color is very pronounced.

The eyes are eight in number. Two of them are close together, on opposite sides of a slightly elevated ridge at the front of the cephalo-thorax. These eyes are bright, black, and beadlike, and about two thirds of a millimetre in diameter. A little farther back, on the outer edges of the cephalo-thorax, are placed the remaining six eyes, three on a side, in a triangular group. These eyes are not quite as large as those in front, but they are of a shining yellow color, and altogether give the face of the whip scorpion a decidedly uncanny look.

But to return to the history of my pet. As Madam Thelyphonus had obviously been accustomed to rather primitive furniture, I did not overburden her new apartments. A thickly sanded floor, a salt dish filled with fresh water, a square of pine bark the size of my hand, slightly elevated, with a few nice pieces of green moss to remind her of the country home she had left, and my involuntary guest was ready for housekeeping. She accepted her new quarters without question or examination, and promptly retired to her bedroom under the bark.

But housekeeping, even for a whip scorpion, involves the food question. Here I was upon uncertain ground. The strictly nocturnal habits of the Thelyphonus render all such investigations difficult. Naturally, the authorities on this point are somewhat indefinite or conflicting. The first things which I placed in the cage were a number of roaches of assorted sizes. One investigator claims that they are readily eaten by the Thelyphonus. Twenty-four hours passed and not a roach was missing.

The matter, however, in which I felt a more immediate interest was the supposed venomous character of my new pet. My experiments were, therefore, especially directed to the settlement of this question. The next night a large, full-grown toad, that for some time had made his home in my back yard, was placed in the cage. The roaches were still there, and right here a very interesting thing happened. The largest cockroach, nearly two inches in length, was upon the side of the cage. The toad had hardly got comfortably seated immediately in front of him when the cockroach suddenly disappeared. I could not say that I saw him disappear. I was looking directly at both, but the "dissolving view" was too rapid for the eye to follow. To say that it was "quick as a flash" would depend somewhat on what kind of a "flash" was meant. I think nitroglycerin would undoubtedly have kept up with my bufo; but, judging from what I saw, or rather didn't see, I should say that this toad could have swallowed about six cockroaches while gunpowder was getting ready to go off! Any one who wishes to get an entirely new view of the meaning of the phrase "with neatness and dispatch" should by all means try this "lightning combination" of cockroaches and a Florida toad!

And now I was all ready for the coming "battle royal" that I had reason to suppose would take place between my little captives. I cautiously removed the bark under which Madam Thelyphonus was hiding, and then awaited results.

They didn't come. The Thelyphonus kept perfectly still, ditto the toad. I must stir them up. With a stick I tried to irritate the scorpion. She proved a perfect marvel of patience. She wouldn't "irritate" worth a cent. I poked the toad over and on top of the supposed vicious and venomous creature. The latter crept out from under her unusual burden and crawled into a corner. The toad in a dazed sort of way pulled himself together and hopped off. I still kept up my pokings and proddings, thinking that possibly my "grampus" could at last be teased into some manifestation of her supposed deadly powers. It was a complete failure. Madam Thelyphonus proved to be a perfect model of patient endurance under persecution. All I could do, there was not a sign or motion of resentment. She could not be teased or tormented into biting, pinching, or fighting anything or anybody. My little captive had all the "ornaments of a meek and quiet spirit," and her only desire seemed to be to get out of the way. Now here was certainly a curious contrast between reputation and real character. A whole Stateful of slanderous natural history was disappearing under my very eyes! "Mule-killer," indeed! Why, my little captive couldn't be coaxed or goaded into harming a fly. In patient sufferance and persistent good nature she could have given points to "Uncle Toby," in his celebrated interview with that annoying insect. Still, although this first experiment quite convinced me that my Thelyphonus was entirely harmless, I concluded to leave my captives together for the night. In the morning, as I expected, both were in the best of health and spirits, the toad eager to jump out, the scorpion eager to be let alone.

The next night I tried a mouse. This sharp-toothed, frisky little rodent would, I thought, be likely to get into trouble if there was any to be found. The teasing process was not repeated, as it had proved such a complete failure. The mouse, however, ran round the cage, tumbling over the Thelyphonus, in the most rapid and reckless way. Every time the latter seemed to regard these awkward encounters as unavoidable accidents, and excused them accordingly. As to biting, pinching, or resenting them in any way, she showed not the slightest symptom of them. She simply crawled into a corner and kept as quiet as circumstances would permit. As in the case of the toad, both were left together overnight. All that really happened, so far as I could see, was that the mouse had nearly gnawed a hole through the cage; but evidently he was none the worse for having shared his bedroom with this terrible "mule-killer," "worse than a rattlesnake," according to the accepted belief.

It is certainly a curious question how so perfectly harmless a creature can have acquired such a bad reputation. I know of no modern parallel. In Shakespeare's time a similar popular prejudice was entertained against one of the most useful servants that farmers and horticulturists possess. The well-known lines—

"The toad, ugly and venomous,
Holds yet a precious jewel in its head"—

were but the echo of this crude and cruel fancy. So with our Thelyphonus. It is not only absolutely harmless, but, as I shall soon show, one of the most useful helps in keeping within bounds one of our most serious pests.

The comment that I once heard, by a not over-intelligent and somewhat profane individual, upon seeing a dead whip scorpion—"Any fool can see that that critter is rank pisin!"—probably partially explains the matter. It must be conceded that the looks of the Thelyphonus are decidedly against it. Its long, frisky tail, its big, threatening claws, and its generally uncanny and vicious appearance are quite sufficient to inspire caution if not positive dread. It "looks pisin," and that settles it with the ignorant. With the better informed the fact that the creature belongs to a bad family, that its nearest relatives are unquestionably venomous, may help to explain, though it can hardly excuse, the widespread currency which even scientific men have helped to give to a most erroneous and slanderous belief.

And now as to the food question. This, of course, was a very vital matter to my little prisoner, and one of great interest to me. After the failure of the cockroach diet, I next tried grasshoppers. These also have been declared to be greatly relished by the Thelyphonus. I did not find it so. The first one placed in the cage was, to be sure, partially eaten. But, unfortunately, a colony of ants had got into the cage, and were dining on my dead Gryllus. This left the matter a little uncertain. On fencing out these intruders, and repeating the experiment with the same and half a dozen other species, I became convinced that my Thelyphonus, at least, was not fond of grasshoppers. Then began a kind of general system, or no system, of haphazard feeding, or rather trials of food. My marketing range for my particular "boarder" was by no means a limited one. During the month of September, when most of these investigations were in progress, Florida is by no means deficient in insect life. Every day from two to ten new and different species were placed in the cage. A list was kept, to avoid repetition, until my captive was offered her choice of something over a hundred varieties of "bugs," worms, grubs, spiders, ants and their eggs, lizards, butterflies, etc. —everything, indeed, that I could think of or conveniently catch, which it seemed possible my little captive might fancy. Of all this heterogeneous collection, nothing, so far as I could see, was ever killed or eaten. A tiny piece of fresh beef, placed in her cage at night, was the only thing that I could persuade her to touch. Even of this I am not absolutely certain. In the morning these little pellets of fresh meat were usually found rolled in the sand and often apparently diminished in size. Several times they disappeared altogether. The presence, however, of other predatory insects sometimes left the matter a little in doubt. But, as my captive remained in good health for over a month while this plan of trial dieting was in progress, I am inclined to think that more or less of the fresh beef was really consumed by her. Still, she took the greatest care that I should never catch her eating, even when surprised with a sudden light at night, a time when she was always especially active.

I was getting a little tired of this seemingly fruitless investigation, and had about concluded to persuade my Thelyphonus to crawl into a bottle in company with a few drops of chloroform, to have her picture taken, and then forward the "embalmed remains" to the Museum of Natural History in Central Park, New York, to which they had already been promised.

I concluded, however, to make one more effort. So the next day I spent some time in hunting for new and untried insects, of which I procured half a dozen or so, and among other things quite a lot of so-called "wood-lice," "white ants," termites, our only representative of a family that in most warm countries is so destructive to exposed wooden structures. All of these "finds" were tumbled, as usual, upon the floor of my captive's cage, and I left them with very little expectation that she would see among them anything that suited her fastidious taste. The next morning, to my surprise, every white ant had disappeared; nothing else was touched. The question was solved. For about three weeks my Thelyphonus was supplied each day with a liberal allowance of what in this latitude, at least, seems to be its exclusive food.

Now, this white ant (Termes flavipes) is in Florida one of our worst pests. Possibly there may be some compensating benefits which they confer, in the more rapid removal of decaying vegetable matter. In most respects, however, they are an unmitigated nuisance. The annual destruction of property, of fencing, building foundations, and exposed woodwork of every kind must be estimated at hundreds of thousands of dollars. The worst of it is, too, that it is impossible to know when they are at work. They are always hidden. In case they are compelled in their destructive labors to pass over the outside of anything, they always build a hard gallery of cemented sand or clay, under which they travel securely. Unfortunately, too, they do not always confine their ravages to dead wood. Every orange grower fears them, and if they once get a foothold the tree that they attack is often destroyed before anything is suspected to be the matter. They "love darkness rather than light," and "their deeds are evil." And it is these miserable pests that my little-appreciated and much-slandered Thelyphonus has been all her life fighting! And those big, strong claws of hers, that look so formidable, what are they for but to tear down and break in pieces the hard, honeycombed structures in which her food is hidden? It was all plain enough now!

I confess, when I first discovered these facts which turn popular natural history so completely topsy-turvy, I felt like taking off my hat and making my profoundest bow to my little captive, and in the name of justice and humanity asking pardon for all the slanders and indignities heaped upon her race.

Since writing the above, a private note from Prof. L. O. Howard, chief of the Division of Entomology in the United States Department of Agriculture, Washington, D. C, furnishes important additional testimony upon the question of the harmlessness of this arachnid. Professor Howard says, "The Thelyphonus is not poisonous."

Perhaps a way of reconciling at least some of the conflicting statements that have been made on the subject may be found in the facts revealed by modern bacteriological investigations. It is well known that under special conditions the bite of the most harmless animal may convey to the human system pathogenic germs which will speedily prove fatal. Most of the deaths reported in the newspapers from the bite of the Thelyphonus are no doubt imaginary, or due entirely to other causes. Any well-authenticated case—if such there has been—is probably to be explained in the manner above indicated. This theory, too, helps to "let down easy" some prominent naturalists whose great names have served to give countenance to one of the most widespread and persistent errors in current natural history.

 


 
In a memorial address of the late Dr. James Hall, made at the recent meeting of the Geological Society of America, Secretary H. L. Fairchild referred to Dr. Hall's development as almost coeval with that of the science of geology in America, and his sixty-two years of activity as connecting the work of the self-taught pioneers in this branch with the widespread field of activity of to-day. Dr. Hall's accuracy and well-balanced observation had made his first work, a report on the Geology of Western New York, a classic of the science to-day.