Scorpions in the Qatar Desert
Androctonus Crassicauda Sweihan by David Gillespie
One of the pleasures of living in Qatar is the weekend trip to the desert or coast. Although the peninsula is small and its population is rapidly increasing, it is still possible to get right away from civilisation and to spend a day pottering around in the Qatar desert without another human being in sight, except perhaps for a shepherd or camel herdsman.
It still surprises me, even after 25 years in Qatar, that there are people who have lived for years in Doha without ever setting foot in the open country, which they consider dangerous. I recall our neighbours some years ago solemnly cautioning us about quick sands! They warned us that if we went off-road our vehicle would be in danger of being swallowed up, and did not believe our assurances that no such terrors existed here.Nevertheless, although quick sands are not something your average weekend tourist has to worry about, there are creatures around which will defend themselves by stinging you if you do not take proper precautions.
The most obvious of these are scorpions.
Everyone knows what a scorpion looks like even if they have never seen one. Their highly distinctive body shape seems ingrained in our minds from earliest times, and conjures up images of an evil-intentioned, aggressive little creature scuttling around and lashing out with its tail in all directions. However, in common with other venomous creatures, scorpions avoid humans and only sting when threatened.
Scorpions belong to a very large group of arthropods animals with a hard external skeleton, segmented body and jointed legs. They have four pairs of legs, but unlike insects they have no antennae or wings. The front pair of legs, called pedipalps, look dangerous, like the claws of a miniature lobster, but are harmless and used for holding and tearing up food. It's the tail you want to keep clear of. The end segment carries a little sac of venom with a needle-sharp, curved sting.
Scorpions are divided into nine families, of which four [Buthidae, Chactidae, Diplocentridae and Scorpionidae] are known to occur in the Middle East. They have existed on the earth for over 400 million years and are capable of surviving in the toughest conditions. In fact, desert scorpions are said to be able to withstand temperatures several degrees higher than other desert arthropods.
They prey on other arthropods, especially beetles and spiders, but some have been known to kill and eat vertebrates such as small lizards, rodents and snakes. They inject neurotoxins to immobilise their prey.
Unusually for arthropods, scorpions are viviparous, giving birth to live young that are miniatures of their parents. Mother scorpions care for their young, carrying them on their backs, and the care can continue for several months. The lifespan of scorpions is generally from two to five years but in one species it is estimated to exceed twenty-five years!
Scorpion Victims in Qatar
Some years ago I made enquiries about the number of scorpion victims seeking treatment at the Accident and Emergency Unit of Hamad Hospital, and was told it was between one and three a day. This seemed a surprisingly high incidence, but similar figures were available from a hospital in Saudi Arabia. It is probably due to the high number of people here who make their living herding animals in the desert and working on building sites where scorpions may hide under building materials. A survey carried out in the Hail region of Saudi Arabia in 1994 recorded 820 cases of scorpion stings in 6 months of which one, to a small child, was fatal.
Apistobuthus Pterygocercus by Drew Gardner
If disturbed, a scorpion curves its tail over its back and circles, flicking its tail. It moves with surprising speed and agility. No work has yet been undertaken in Qatar to determine just how many species of scorpion occur here, but two which are commonly seen are easily identified.
The big, chunky-looking black scorpion Androctonus crassicauda is one of the largest of all scorpions and adults can measure up to 15 cm from head to sting tip. Its name means Fat tail'. It is generally found in rocky areas and looks fearsome, but is said to have a less venomous sting than the smaller, greeny-yellow scorpions which inhabit sandy areas including beaches. Like Androctonus, they are members of the Buthidae family and are probably Buthacus yotvatensis nigroaculeatus. I have seen other species of scorpion here that I have not been able to identify; there may well be many more.
The Most Venemous Scorpion in the World
Saudi Arabia has the dubious distinction of being home to the most venomous scorpion in the world, Leiurus quinquestriatus, commonly known as the Death Stalker or Yellow Scorpion, but there are no records as yet of it occurring in Qatar. It is small and a distinctive dark yellow, very different from the pale greeny-yellow of the locally common species mentioned above. The highly toxic venom can prove fatal to the elderly or the very young.
There are two types of scorpion poison. One is local in effect, causing swelling and discoloration of the tissues. The other is a nerve poison which destroys red blood corpuscles, and the venom of the Yellow Scorpion is of this type.
Buthacus Yotvatensis by Drew Gardner
Scorpions never appear during the day, being strictly nocturnal, and you could live in Qatar for years and never see one. They hide under rocks, but what they really seem to prefer are pieces of old rotten wood, metal or even expanded polystyrene of which, alas, there is no shortage even in the remotest areas.
Once, when we were camping, we threw a big piece of driftwood on to the bonfire and a scorpion ran out and over someone's bare toes. It was a reminder to us that one should always wear closed shoes, not sandals or flip-flops, when walking around after dark.
An interesting feature of scorpions is that they fluoresce when exposed to ultra violet [UV] light. Scientists have not yet discovered why this happens, but it is used by biologists when estimating scorpion populations in a particular area without having to capture them. It is also an effective way of doing a quick scorpion count when camping, although in some locations it can be alarming to see just how many there are!
There is no need for anyone to experience the pain and shock of a scorpion sting if simple, commonsense rules are followed. Never turn over a rock without keeping your fingers well clear of what might be hiding underneath. When camping, keep the fly-screen on your tent firmly closed at all times. Scorpions seem to make a bee-line, if that is the right expression, for tents.
Some years ago a camping party from the Norwegian School found no fewer than 11 small, greeny-yellow scorpions underneath the ground sheet of the tent in which they had spent the night on Messai'eed beach! Be careful when picking up boxes of food and equipment, you don't know what may have crawled under them during the night.
In the unfortunate event of a sting, the first thing is to reassure the victim, who will be suffering from shock. Clean the wound with water and apply a firm supporting bandage but not a tourniquet. Keep the site of the sting as cool as possible using iced water if available, and keep it below the level of the heart. In hospital a local anaesthetic will be administered by injection to relieve the pain, followed by an oral analgesic. The injured person is normally kept in for observation for six hours and then discharged if no deterioration in his/her condition occurs.
Frances Gillespie has contributed to several publications related to Qatar, is the author of Discovering Qatar and also writes regular feature articles for a national newspaper on the cultural heritage and natural history of the country. She is a former chairperson of the Qatar Natural History Group, and is still active on the committee.