Scorpions Aren’t Nearly As Dangerous As You Think

“While Fell was reposing himself in the hay, / A reptile concealed bit his leg as he lay; / But, all venom himself, of the wound he made light, / And got well, while the scorpion died of the bite.” —Gotthold Ephraim Lessing

In A Nutshell

If there’s any creature that’s been vilified as being a deadly, sneaky, underhanded threat to humans, it’s the scorpion. Only, they’re not nearly as dangerous as movies would like you to think. There are more than 1,500 different species of scorpion that have so far been discovered in the world, and only about 25 of them pose a threat to humans—and even those stings aren’t any real danger to healthy adults.

The Whole Bushel

Just the sight of a scorpion can make anyone shudder, especially the ones that are big enough to hunt other creatures like snakes. But contrary to popular belief, the majority of scorpions aren’t as dangerous as movies would have you believe.

All scorpions are armed with a stinger: It’s how they hunt and incapacitate their prey. But for most scorpions, that prey is usually insects and spiders.

Out of about 1,500 species of scorpion that have been identified so far, only about 25 of them have venom that can theoretically kill a human, with many of these guys still unable to kill a healthy adult. One of the deadliest scorpions is the aptly named “deathstalker,” which has a venom powerful enough to kill children and the elderly; they’re also, weirdly, one of the most common types of scorpions that are kept as pets.

In the United States alone, there are about 80 different types of scorpions, with only one presenting a danger to humans. The Arizona bark scorpion is labeled as potentially lethal, but it’s been decades since there has been a death attributed to this scorpion (with more than 1,500 reported cases of scorpion stings each year in Arizona), and there’s also an extremely effective anti-venom that’s been developed.

Other scorpions, like the striped tail scorpion, are commonly found throughout the American Southwest and while they’re venomous, they’re not actually dangerous to humans. Most scorpions are also only active at night, minimizing the contact they have with humans—although they have been known to shelter in shoes, boots, and blankets during the daytime.

In most cases, getting stung by a scorpion is much like being stung by a wasp. While some people do have allergies to scorpion venom that can result in anaphylaxis, the more typical reaction is numbness and swelling in the area of the sting, and sometimes intense pain. For most people, both the pain and the swelling will disappear after about half an hour.

There is truth, however, to the idea that the larger the scorpion is, the less dangerous it probably is. Smaller scorpions rely more on the strength of their venom to kill or incapacitate their prey, while larger scorpions rely more on their massive front pincers to hold their kill. And it’s also true that scorpions glow under a black light, which can be used to find them.

Thanks to modern science, the much-maligned scorpion might just end up being a lifesaver. Oddly, it’s deathstalker venom that might saving lives someday, possibly helping surgeons find and destroy cancer cells. Researchers at the Seattle Children’s Hospital have discovered that scorpion venom can bypass the naturally occurring blood-brain barrier, a membrane around the brain that, theoretically, keeps dangerous substances out of the brain. They’ve now taken the paralytic protein from the deathstalker’s venom, bound it to a fluorescent molecule, and injected it into patients with cancerous cells in their bodies. The protein molecule, which they’ve named “tumor paint,” adheres to cancerous cells and acts as a beacon to show doctors and surgeons just what needs to be removed. Oftentimes, the groups of cells are so tiny that they don’t even show up on other, more traditional imaging methods.

Show Me The Proof

University of California Pest Management: Scorpions
Mayo Clinic: Scorpion Stings
University of Wisconsin—Lacrosse: Deathstalker Scoprion
Slate.com: How deadly are scorpions?
ABC News: Scorpion Venom Used to Fight Cancer in ‘Tumor Paint’