A HOW-TO GUIDE FOR COLLECTING SCORPIONS
I receive a lot of emails asking for tips on collecting scorpions in the field, so I’ve assembled a quick guide to help you get started. Conveniently, scorpions fluoresce a brilliant green to blue color when illuminated with ultraviolet (UV) light (also known as blacklights). Being nocturnal animals, this makes them relatively easy to find. All you have to do is wait until dusk and then pull out a UV light. You will need to be in the right habitat, of course, and collecting efforts are usually most productive during warm summer months. But on a good night scorpions can sometimes be found by the hundreds!
Although scorpions occur in all but the coldest environments (there are no arctic scorpions), they are most abundant in warm arid ecosystems. So if you want to find scorpions in the United States then your best bet is to hit the deserts. Sand dune communities and warm, low-elevation habitats are best, where you’re likely to encounter large aggressive species like the giant hairy scorpions (Hadrurus spp., below) and California dune scorpions (Smeringurus mesaensis).
Below I provide some simple steps to increase your chances of a successful collecting expedition.
- Find habitat BEFORE it gets dark. Look for sandy substrates with mesquite thickets or vegetated desert washes if you want to target giant hairy scorpions. Rocky habitats will harbor smaller but equally fascinating species like sawfinger scorpions (Serradigitus ) and more venomous bark scorpions (Centruroides spp.).
- Park your vehicle and make sure you can find it in the dark. The best methods are to use a GPS and mark your vehicle as a waypoint, or to turn on a flashlight and leave it your dashboard or hood. Large bright lights pointed toward the sky can produce a beam that can be seen from miles away, just like the Luxor hotel in Las Vegas, making it easy to find your way back.
NOTE: Do not underestimate how easy it is to get lost in the desert at night, especially at flat, low-elevation sites or sand dunes. I have become disoriented on several occasions, even after years of experience.
- Put on your snake chaps. I used to naively walk through the desert at night in flip flops. I grew up searching for and collecting snakes, so I figured I would easily see a rattlesnake well before I stepped on it. Several humbling close calls later and now I never look for scorpions without my chaps! Not only do they prevent debilitating and costly (medical bills in the six figures) rattlesnake bites, but they act as excellent shin guards when pushing your way through sharp, spiny, and downright malicious desert vegetation. Chaps have saved my legs from encounters with nasty plants like the teddybear cholla on several occasions.
I’ve tried a variety of chaps. The plastic versions are too brittle and can crack when you bend down to collect scorps, and most of the others get too hot. It seems like most snake chaps just aren’t made for the desert.
Personally, I like loose fitting chaps, which allows for air flow (they don’t get too hot) and maneuverability, but are durable enough for even the most aggressive cacti. Oh, and this is probably obvious, but you should wear a good sturdy pair of boots with your chaps. Leather is best.
- Put on your headlamp. Check the batteries first and then put on your headlamp. This is such an essential item that I usually carry a backup headlamp and spare batteries in a backpack. Most headlamps should work fine, but I prefer headlamps made by Petzl, the brighter the better. I currently use a Petzl Tikka XP, which has various brightness levels, wide and narrow beams, and a red light option. The red light is really useful when you find a scorpion and need some light while your collecting it but don’t want to strain your eyes after they have adjusted to the dark purple haze of the UV.
- Prepare your containers. Scorpions are often cannibalistic so it’s best to store them in separate containers. For small species with mild venom I find Ziploc sandwich bags to be tremendously convenient. They are lightweight and pack well, so I stuff a bunch in my backpack and stick another handful in my pants pocket for quick access. For large or more venomous species I recommend deli cups. You can’t fit nearly as many of these in your pack, but they stack well. I simply store them in a large cardboard box in the trunk of my vehicle and keep a few in my pack while out collecting.
- Grab your tweezers. Although I know of some collectors that “tail” scorpions with their bare fingers while collecting, this technique is certainly not for everyone. Furthermore, it’s just so much easier, and more efficient, to use long tweezers! I carry rubber-tipped stainless steel tweezers in two lengths; 8” for small and medium sized scorpions and 12” for large giant hairy scorpions.
The rubber tips help prevent damaging the specimens. Without the rubber it’s easy to crush or crack their exoskeletons, providing a route of entry for infections. Tweezers seem to disappear in the field, so you’ll want to purchase several of each size, especially the 8” length.
- Fire up your blacklight. Ultraviolet lights come in many shapes and forms, but I prefer small, highly portable versions like the 51 and 100 LED models that run on AAs. Blacklights have come a long way since I began collecting. I remember climbing rock faces and collecting bark scorpions while holding a long fluorescent tube light connected to a heavy motorcycle battery in my pack! Now you can easily carry a lightweight light in one hand and keep a backup in your pack. Always check your batteries before a hunt and I highly recommend carrying at least two lights. After all the time and money spent to get to a collecting site, you’ll have to turn around if your light doesn’t work.
- Collect! Walk around and shine your blacklight in areas where you think scorpions might be lurking. I usually angle my light to cover areas between 5 and 20 feet in front of me. Scan the light around in open areas, as you’ll often find scorpions out and exposed with their pedipalps (claws) in the air waiting for prey. Also look in and below small trees and shrubs. Giant hairy scorpions like to burrow between the root system of mesquite, creosote, and other vegetation. Other species like some of the dune scorpions (Paruroctonus spp.) can often be found climbing plants, sometimes waiting at the tips of branches, presumably to catch aerial insect prey.
Once you find a scorpion use your rubber-tipped tweezers to grab it at by the tail, preferably the base. Sometimes scorpions will be sitting at the entrance of their burrow and you only will have one chance to grab them before they disappear into the darkness of their retreat. In these cases I walk up slowly and gently (they feel vibrations) and then quickly grab the scorpion by a pedipalp (claw) and pull it out of the burrow before it has a chance to descend into the burrow.
Place the scorpion in a container, turn on your headlamp if needed, and stash the container in your backpack. Be careful if you are using sandwich bags as scorpions can sting through them. I’ve been stung several times while complacently pushing sandwich bags into my pack.
Finally, store your scorpions in a safe place for travel and don’t forget to remove them from your vehicle when you arrive at your destination. Even desert scorpions can’t withstand the temperatures of cars left in the summer sun!
Below I’ve summarized a list of gear to get you started. Have fun out there!
- Snake Chaps
- 8″ rubber-tipped tweezers (for small & medium scorps)
- 12″ rubber-tipped tweezers (for large scorps)
- Deli cups (or Ziploc baggies)
- 51 LED UV Lights or 100 LED UV Lights
Volunteers blacklighting for scorpions at a BioBlitz at Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve.