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Regional Interests

Scorpions Are Predators With a Sensitive Side

Look past their grasping claws and lightning-fast stingers, and you’ll see scorpions have a delicate pair of comb-like organs on their belly called pectines. These sensory body parts help them navigate, and figure out who’s a menace, a meal or a mate.

TRANSCRIPT

Powerful pincers. Paralyzing venom. Armor fortified with iron and zinc. They’re totally metal.

The scorpion has a fierce reputation that’s lasted through the ages. Its ancestors were some of Earth’s earliest predators. But this beast has a secret — a softer side.

If you flip over a scorpion — don’t try this at home — its belly is sensitive, and not just because its armor is thinner there. Right behind its legs, you’ll see a couple of comb-like organs.

These are pectines, and every scorpion has a pair. The comb teeth are covered in tiny sensors called peg sensilla. Every peg sensillum has a slit-shaped pore that takes in chemical traces from the ground and air. Each is attached to roughly a dozen nerve cells. This helps the scorpion’s brain read the chemicals, to understand its environment. It’s similar to how we taste and smell.

That’s useful, because even though it has many eyes, a scorpion’s vision is not the best. When two scorpions meet, they use their pectines to sense each other’s pheromones — invisible chemical signals they release into the world around them. This helps them determine who’s a menace, meal, or potential mate.

Looks like these two are a match. They’re not fighting, they’re — well — holding hands and kissing, scorpion style. And this is their version of a slow dance.

The male deposits a packet of sperm on the ground inside a casing called a spermatophore. She picks up what she needs, and just like that, this brief but sweet courtship is over.

The peg sensilla are also sensitive to physical cues. They brush the ground as the scorpion walks, deciphering textures that help it navigate. But the pectines aren’t its only specialized sensors.

The scorpion’s dainty feet and hairs all over its body also help it pick up minuscule vibrations.

Mmm! Dinner!

Fossils show scorpions have existed in some form or another since before the dinosaurs. At night, researchers can find scorpions because they glow under a simple UV flashlight. Why this is, is a mystery.

Today, there are more than 2,000 species found all over the planet. And scientists are still discovering more.

There’s so much pressure out there to be tough, smart, fast. Maybe the real trick to survival is cultivating your sensitive side,  for hundreds of millions of years.

Hey, it’s Laura. Need some more arachnids like these scorpions in your life? I thought so. Let’s keep things going with this spider playlist.

And — a special thank you to Chris B Emrick, whose generous monthly support on Patreon helps make Deep Look possible. If you want to support us on Patreon, too, there’s a link in the description. Thanks!

Copyright 2021 KQED