Scorpions Use Strongest Defense When Under Attack: How They Choose Between Their Stinger Or Pincers

By Nsikan Akpan on November 13, 2013 5:54 PM EST

<a href=Scorpion | Scorpion | SXC.

"Choose your weapon...but choose wisely." That sounds like a line from a Kung Fu movie, but actually, it is the mantra adopted by scorpions, according to a new study in the journal PLOS ONE.

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Scorpions possess two basic weapons for defense - their menacing pincers and their venom-laced stinger. In this study, researchers discovered these cunning invertebrates pick which weapon to use when cornered by predators.

This raises a perplexing question: who would be dumb enough to attack a scorpion?

Only 2,000 scorpion species exist on the planet - by comparison, there are 900,000 known insect species - yet in some regions, scorpions are abundant enough to be an important food source for predators.

One example of a scorpion hunter is the Hemprich's long-eared bat, which stalks the small arachnids in desert habitats by using ecolocation and is naturally impervious to their venom.

The size and shape of a scorpion's pincers and stingers varies dramatically from species to species, so the researchers wondered if this dictates which weapon is chosen.

This scorpion has a serious 'booty'

Caption: This photo shows the Black fat–tailed scorpion (Androctonus bicolor), one of the studied species and a thin-pincered scorpion.  Credit: Arie van der Meijden
Caption: This photo shows the Black fat–tailed scorpion (Androctonus bicolor), one of the studied species and a thin-pincered scorpion. Credit: Arie van der Meijden

They used rubber-tipped forceps to aggravate the crap out of 26 different types of scorpions, with a broad range of pincer and stinger shapes.

Scorpions with bigger pincers could clamp down harder on the forceps and preferred to use these as defense mechanisms.

'My, what big pincers you have.' 'All the better to hold you with, my dear'

Caption: This photo shows one of the studies species, a thicker-pincered scorpion, Iurus dufoureius. Credit: Arie van der Meijden
Caption: This photo shows one of the studies species, a thicker-pincered scorpion, Iurus dufoureius. Credit: Arie van der Meijden

In contrast, scorpions with bigger stingers chose to whip them out rather than rely on their pincers.

"We found clear relationships between shape, performance, and behavior, even when taking their evolutionary history into account," said author Dr. Arie van der Meijden of the CIBIO Institute in Vairão, Portugal. The study was conducted in cooperation with the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, France.

The study suggests that defensive behaviors evolved to match the morphology of pincers and stingers, though a chicken-and-egg question remains: Did an inclination toward pincer (or stinger) usage boost its size or did the larger girth precede a change in behavior?

They scientists also confirmed that tail size correlated with the potency of the venom, suggesting bigger stinger equal more lethal poison.

But don't fret. Only 20 to 30 species possess poison strong enough to kill a person and deaths are a rare occurrence.

"When it comes to defense, it seems scorpions choose their best weapons. I managed to not even get stung once during this research," said van der Meijden.

Source: van der Meijden A, Lobo Coelho P, Sousa P, Herrel A. Choose Your Weapon: Defensive Behavior Is Associated with Morphology and Performance in Scorpions. PLoS ONE. 2013.

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