You should wear gloves to keep your hands clean when gardening, but also to protect you from a little beastie that can give you a nasty sting - a scorpion. Their sting can penetrate through latex gloves and most clothing, but not through tough leather or vinyl, so seriously thick gloves would be recommended. I have only ‘met’ two here in Portugal – I know there are more, but I just haven’t encountered them. Most types of scorpions here are pretty small, measuring between 2.5cm – 12cm in length, but the largest scorpion in the world (thankfully not found here!) is the long-tailed African scorpion, measuring over 20cm in length. The only scorpion species in Portugal is the Buthus ibericus, and is quite common in southwestern Europe.
They are closely related to arachnids - spiders, mites and ticks, with strong jaws and a pair of pincers to hold their prey still while the stinger does the business, plus four pairs of legs that end in claws. Scorpions do not have bones - they have an exoskeleton made of chitin, which is similar to the shell of a shrimp, which makes them arthropods. Despite having six to twelve eyes - an obvious pair at the centre of the carapace and two to five smaller eyes on each side - scorpions do not have good eyesight. Because of this they do not stalk or chase their prey but lie in wait for it. They use their pincers to grab the prey, crush it, and draw it to their mouth, and then ingests the body juices of its prey. Some scorpion species will even play dead to catch their prey unawares.
The stinger in the tail is the bit to avoid - it’s called a telson, and works like a hypodermic syringe, with the scorpion able to regulate how much venom is injected, which is a mix of toxins that affect the nervous system. The ones here are only potent enough to kill the insects or small animals on its menu, and if you get stung, you are likely feel an extremely intense, painful sting, similar to that of a bee sting, which typically will last less than 24 hours, with major symptoms subsiding gradually. However, there can be numbness, tingling, and shock waves of minor symptoms that persist for 2 to 3 days. Tips for safety, for both adults and children, is to clean the wound with mild soap and water, apply a cool compress to the affected area, and don't consume food or liquids if you’re having difficulty swallowing, but see a doctor. Take an over-the-counter pain reliever as needed. Thankfully only 30-40 in the world can cause serious problems, and none of them live in Portugal!
These hardy arthropods have been around for hundreds of millions of years, with survival skills allowing them to live in some of the planet's toughest environments. Researchers have bizarrely frozen them overnight, thawed them in the sun the next day and watched them walk away. They are also burrowing creatures, so in areas of permafrost or heavy grasses, they would have a difficult time living without soil.
Equipped with such skills, when food is scarce, they are able to slow their metabolism to as little as one-third the typical rate for arthropods. This technique enables some to use very little oxygen and live on as little as a single insect per year. Their modified lungs, which are known as book lungs, also allow them to hold their breath for long as 6 days! Even so, the scorpion can spring quickly to the hunt if the opportunity presents itself—a trick that many hibernating species lack.
They have various colours, from a beigy yellow to black, red or brown, all good camouflage colours. A scorpion is quite distinctive in appearance, with a segmented tail curving forward towards its head. They are solitary creatures, so it’s unlikely you will get an invasion of them.
Everyone fears a scorpion sting, but their images appear in art, folklore, mythology, and even commercial brands, with their shapes woven into some kilim carpets for protection. Just don’t touch!
Marilyn writes regularly for The Portugal News, and has lived in the Algarve for some years. A dog-lover, she has lived in Ireland, UK, Bermuda and the Isle of Man.