Whether you’re in a survival situation, camping or have chosen to live off-grid, chances are you’ll come across a scorpion or two. These crawling critters normally pose no threat unless you happen to accidentally disturb them or stumble upon their nest, in which case they’ll sting in self-defense, in some cases with fatal consequences.
In this article, learn about the most venomous scorpions, where to find them, how to avoid them and what to do in case you’re stung.
Getting to know scorpions
As a species, scorpions have changed little in their 300 million-year existence. Like most arachnids, scorpions have four pairs of legs, an exoskeleton, and two main body parts – a thorax and abdomen. What sets them apart from most other arachnids are its pair of pincers and a curved, multi-segmented tail that ends in a stinger (called a “aculeus”) for injecting paralyzing venom into their prey.
The 6 deadliest variants
Of the nearly 2,000 different scorpion species, only around 25 have venom potent enough to kill humans, and one of the most venomous happens to be endemic to North America. Here we list 6 of the most dangerous scorpions in the world.
1. Bark Scorpion
This is the most venomous scorpion in North America. Commonly found in Arizona, the Bark scorpion also inhabits parts of New Mexico, southern Utah, southern Nevada, and the Mexican states of Sonora and Chihuahua.
The potentially lethal venom it packs is a powerful neurotoxin that causes severe pain. Patients who have survived describe the pain akin to getting “severe electric jolts”. More serious cases include numbness, diarrhea and vomiting as symptoms, which could lead to death. If left untreated, the survival rate of a patient can range from 1 to 25%, depending on the patient’s overall health and age. Luckily, antivenin is widely available and extremely effective so there hasn’t been a Bark scorpion casualty in America in the past 40 years.
Compared to its other sting-bearing cousins, the Bark scorpion’s body is more slender, along with a thinner tail and thinner pincers. Its color ranges from tan, to yellowish-brown. It can have these colors without markings, or have stripes of a more visible shade running from its head to tail. Some varieties, like those in Sonora, will have a completely black body, while the pincers, tail, stinger and legs are a yellowish shade. It also has a telltale triangle on its head, right where its eyes are.
Another unique identifying trait is its behavior. The Bark scorpion will lay its tail completely flat and “cocked” to its side when ambushing prey and waiting to strike. In terms of size, the Bark scorpion is small, measuring only a little over 3 inches if male, and 2.75 inches if female.
The Bark scorpion is a nocturnal creature, preying mostly on roaches, crickets, beetles and other small insects. They are also cannibals, preying on other scorpions. Like most of its kind, this critter is well-adapted to desert conditions, hiding under rocks, wood piles, the bark of trees or in tiny crevices during the day to avoid the sun and heat. Bark scorpions don’t make burrows and can squeeze into spaces as small as 0.06 inch; it’s not unusual for them to make their way into homes and hide in cluttered basements, the cracks in walls or furniture, making them a nasty surprise not just in the desert but even in homes.
2. Spitting Thicktail Black Scorpion
This is one of the largest scorpions, and is also known as the South African Fattail scorpion. It’s the most dangerous scorpion in the southern regions of Africa. Its ubiquitously stout tail and stinger can deliver 4.25 mg of venom, and that is enough to kill an adult human. Its venom has the same potency as cyanide, but not every sting is immediately fatal. One unique characteristic of this scorpion is that it secretes and uses two different poisons; the first is more like a “warning dose” that’s sufficiently potent to only immobilize small prey, and serve as a “warning shot”. If the prey is not subdued or an aggressor doesn’t relent its attack, the scorpion delivers a second dose, one that is potentially lethal. This, the scorpion uses as its defense if it feels it’s in a life-or-death situation.
Another unusual feature of this scorpion is that it can actually “spit” its venom up to a distance of three feet. If its aim is right, the venom can temporarily blind or permanently damage its target’s eyes. Despite the lethality of its venom, less than 1% of victims have died from this scorpion’s sting. Even though it’s unlikely to die from its venom, it is by no means a walk in the park. Symptoms that may manifest in victims include intense pain, sweating, muscular convulsions, drooling and heart palpitations.
As its other name implies, the Spitting Thicktail Black scorpion is predominantly black in color, and it certainly does “spit” or squirt its venom. Relative to other scorpions, the segments of its tail are very fat and thick, as is the stinger or aculeus. It’s also one of the largest scorpions, sometimes growing to up to about 6 inches in length. Other signature characteristics of this critter are its small pincers, and buff black tail for “stabbing” venom onto its prey or aggressors.
For seeking out prey, they mostly rely on the many hairs on their body to feel for vibrations and disturbances in the air caused by movement. What’s also interesting about this species of scorpion is that it has a way of making a warning sound, much like a rattlesnake; it will rub its stinger across its rough back; this is called “stridulation”.
Like most other scorpions, the Spitting Thicktail Black is a nocturnal hunter. Preferring to stay in caves, under rocks, in cacti or other crannies to stay away from the beating desert sun, this scorpion is common throughout the semi-arid regions of the Middle East and Africa. So if you ever find yourself stationed or traveling in these regions, stay a healthy distance away from this giant critter and its “spitting” sting.
3. Yellow Fattail Scorpion
Aptly dubbed “Androctonus” as its scientific name, meaning “man-killer” in Greek, the yellow fattail possesses one of the most powerful neurotoxins found in scorpions. The venom is fast-acting and attacks the central nervous system, causing paralysis and, in some cases, death via respiratory failure. If not treated with antivenin, patients can die within 2-7 hours after being stung. Apart from being highly venomous, the Yellow Fattail is also a surprisingly tough little critter. If caught in a sandstorm, most other scorpions will seek refuge in any crack or crevice they can find, or even burrow in the sand, while the yellow fattail will actually stay put and allow the elements to bear down upon it. Owing to its tough exoskeleton, this tiny creature can withstand a sandblasting that can strip the paint off steel.
As with most other potentially lethal scorpions, the yellow fattail has small pincers, a thin body and relatively stout tail. Its pincers aren’t this critter’s primary weapon, so evolution has caused its pincers to be quite small and slender. While its legs, pincers, and tail segments will be a bright yellow, this fattail’s body and its stinger is usually a dark shade of brown or black, with darker horizontal stripes lining its “armor plates”. It can grow to sizes of 2.5 to 3.5 inches in length.
In the wild, you may encounter this scorpion in the deserts of North Africa and Southeast Asia. In America, some collectors keep these as exotic pets. As of this writing, thankfully, no specimens have been reported as escaping from captivity and thriving in the wild.
4. Brazilian Yellow Scorpion
Not a very creative or intimidating name for a deadly scorpion, the Brazilian yellow still packs a punch. It’s actually the most dangerous scorpion you may chance upon in South America. Contact with this venomous vermin is all too common an occurrence in the regions, with thousands of people stung annually. In the mildest cases, patients emerge from the experience with only a severely painful sting, coupled with fever, sweating, nausea and a rapid heartbeat. In more serious cases, hyperesthesia may occur, causing the patient’s body to become enveloped in intense pain from becoming extremely sensitive to even the slightest touch. In the most extreme cases, the patient may have stomach cramps, vomiting and breathing difficulties. The young and elderly are at serious risk of death from heart and lung failure. Although the Brazilian Yellow scorpion rarely delivers a large dose when it stings, an average of 3,000 people still die from its sting in South America. As of 2016, the antivenin for this scorpion is not 100% effective, and sometimes leads to a fatal allergic reaction.
As its name suggests, the Brazilian Yellow scorpion is colored mostly a bright yellow, with a dark-brown to seemingly orange stinger. Its head and body are almost entirely a darker shade of brown, or has horizontal brown bands on its plates. The pincers have dark brown-tinged tips. It can grow to a length of up to 2.7 inches.
The Brazilian yellow feeds on a variety of insects like crickets and roaches, and occasionally preys on small rodents if the opportunity arises. It prefers to hide in piles of debris in houses, which makes it the culprit in many child deaths. As its name implies, this killer critter inhabits rural and urban areas of Brazil.
5. Arabian Fat-tailed Scorpion
A relative of the yellow fattail, this scorpion is very common in the deserts of the Middle East and Africa. This species was even considered a major hazard for soldiers of either side, whenever there was a conflict in the Persian Gulf. Many films in popular culture featured this species, likely due to its menacing color. Due to its vast numbers, this scorpion’s venom has been farmed and used as antivenin in Turkey since 1942. Its pincers are comparatively more robust than other cousins; it effectively uses its strong pincers to capture, restrain to inject venom, or even tear apart its prey rather than rely completely on its venom.
Apart from its rather stout and powerful-looking tail and relatively large stinger, the Arabian Fat-tailed scorpion can be identified by its color and the texture of its exoskeleton. Usually reddish-brown in color, it may also be entirely black or brown, with raised tips on its body, giving it a grainy, tough appearance. This is a medium-sized scorpion, growing up to lengths of just under 4 inches. Another unusual characteristic of this treacherous critter is its temperament; it’s more aggressive than other scorpions and chooses to attack rather than scamper away if threatened.
This species is commonly found in the Middle East, in countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Iraq, Iran and Turkey. It can also be found in some countries in North Africa. Typically inhabiting desert environments, the Arabian Fat-Tailed Scorpion is also like most other scorpions; it’s a nocturnal hunter that burrows in the sand during the day, and also likes to hide in old abandoned ruins, wood piles, loose stones and rubble, inside houses and in most any nook or cranny until dark. They feed on small lizards, rodents, other scorpions, spiders and most other small insects for food.
6. Deathstalker Scorpion
The Deathstalker Scorpion is one you should definitely give a wide berth. Despite its puny appearance, its venom more than makes up for its size. If you’re stung by this deadly critter, you’ll be treated to both an extremely painful sting and venom that’s a deadly cocktail of neurotoxins and cardiotoxins. This scorpion is one of a short list of critters that pose a serious threat to even the healthiest persons. Young children and elderly adults with heart problems are at serious risk of death from a Deathstalker’s sting. Anyone stung will experience a life-threatening allergic reaction to the venom, apart from the excruciating pain. Most patients are at risk of developing pancreatitis after being stung, and the primary cause of death is pulmonary edema – fluid accumulation in the lungs. Although most healthy adult patients survive their sting, it’s partly due to their having an innate tolerance to the venom. Still, being stung by the Deathstalker is an experience that promises to be as painful as it is unforgettable.
The Deathstalker is a relatively smaller scorpion that grows to up to only 2.5 inches. Its body, pincers, legs, tail and stinger have an overall svelte appearance. Its color is usually a pale yellow, with a “spray” of black on its head and body, on the tail segment just before the stinger, and the stinger itself is typically colored black. Other variations include horizontal stripes of gray or orange-yellow on its body, and a dark vertical line that extends from its head to the beginning of its tail.
This scorpion is as prolific as it is deadly, occupying vast swaths of desert and scrubland from North Africa to the Middle East. It can be found in the Sahara, the Arabian desert and even the plains of Central Asia, ranging as far as east as India.
What to do if stung
The first thing anyone stung by a scorpion must do is not to panic. Don’t try to capture the offending critter as you only risk getting stung again, but try to take a picture of it or give an accurate description to the doctor.
If you or anyone else is stung, seek medical help if:
- You can’t identify or aren’t sure what type of scorpion stung the patient
- The victim has a history of being allergic to insect stings or bites, in which case you should have an EpiPen ready
- Patient is showing signs of anaphylactic shock
- He or she is an infant, very young or very old
- Numbness, pain, burning or tingling sensation is felt throughout the body
- Patient has started vomiting, drooling or sweating
- They start exhibiting unusual head, neck and eye movements
- There is involuntary muscular twitching or thrashing
- The victim was stung in the face or near the eyes
Home remedies for scorpion stings
Although most scorpion stings can be remedied with items commonly found in your medicine cabinet or pantry, you can do so only if you’re certain the scorpion’s venom is not lethal. Do note that home remedies should only be used when the patient is a reasonably healthy adult without any serious heart ailments, and the symptoms manifested are mild. The symptoms are considered “mild” if the patient feels pain, a burning or tingling sensation or numbness only at the site of the scorpion sting.
It’s important that the patient remain calm to keep the venom from spreading throughout their body, and to avoid drinking or eating anything if the patient has difficulty swallowing. The victim must also avoid ingesting anything that could speed up their heart rate, such as caffeinated beverages, alcohol or energy drinks. Before applying any of the following home remedies, wash the bite site with warm water and soap.
Here are some home remedies for scorpion stings:
- Ammonia – Apply some of this solution to the affected area to relieve the pain and swelling. You can soak the affected limb for about 10 minutes to bring down the swelling.
- 2. Mango leaf – This is one of the oldest home remedies; extract the sap from mango tree leaves and apply on the affected area.
- Garlic – Take a couple of peeled garlic cloves, grind them into a paste and apply on the sting; leave the paste on for a few hours. The patient can also take a tablespoon of garlic juice, mixed with some honey to relieve the pain.
- Basil – Take a few basil leaves and extract the juice out of them; apply this juice onto the sting and let it sit for a few hours. For better results, add salt to the juice.
- Frankincense oil – A few drops of this oil can bring down swelling and relieve the burning sensation of the sting. This may cost a bundle, but Frankincense has a shelf life of 15 years and can be used to treat other insect bites or stings as well.
- Cortisone cream – This common over-the-counter item at the pharmacy is very effective at bringing down the swelling and the pain at the bite area.
The way to avoid getting stung by these scorpions is no big secret. Most scorpions are only active at night, and generally avoid contact with humans. If you can’t avoid going to places where you’re likely to encounter them, just be cautious and aware enough to clear out any debris in or near your tent, home or shelter if you’re close to their habitat. Make simple checks like overturning your boots or turning your clothes inside-out before wearing them. Note that the use of ultraviolet (UV) lighting makes it very easy to spot scorpions up to six feet away. This can be most helpful if you’re out and about at night.
Don’t go out of your way to find scorpions (unless you’re in a real SHTF situation and are hunting them for food!), and if you come face-to-face with one, don’t antagonize it. Kill it only if it acts aggressively toward you (such as if it’s an Arabian Fat-tailed). Wear comfortable clothing that covers most of your body, and don’t go outdoors wearing open-toed sandals.