Dangerous Scorpions of southern Africa excerpt from ASI Newsletter by kind permission of Johan Marais
With around 150 described species of scorpions in southern Africa (and new species still being described) scorpion identification is no easy task.
All scorpions are venomous, however, stings from a number of species are mild and are not of medical importance. They may be painful for a few hours but are not potentially life-threatening.
There are several old and incorrect stories about scorpions and scorpion identification. One such story is that only black scorpions are dangerous. There is no rule of thumb for determining whether a scorpion is dangerous or not based on colour alone. Highly venomous scorpions come in a variety of colours ranging from black, brown, yellow, light brown, orange and a mixture of all of the above.
Another story is based on the size of the scorpion, with many people incorrectly telling us that smaller scorpions are far more venomous than larger scorpions. The size of a scorpion makes little difference as to how dangerous it is. A baby Thicktail Scorpion of a few centimetres long will deliver a painful and potentially dangerous sting compared to the mild prick delivered from a large (up to 20cm) Rock Scorpion
The main rule for identifying potentially dangerous scorpions is based on the size of their tail in relation to the size of their pincers: those with thick tails and small pincers being far more venomous than those with a thin tail and large pincers.
The genus Parabuthus (A) is known as our Thicktail Scorpions and some of them are considered potentially deadly in southern Africa. There are two species that are potentially life-threatening and the other species may deliver a painful sting. Note the ratio of small pincers to thick tail in Parabuthus.
Nomads (Hottentota sp.) and Pygmy-thicktails (Afrolychus sp.) are not represented on this chart as they are not commonly encountered in Southern Africa. These two genera are small scorpions and are not life-threatening but have a nasty venom that causes intense pain.
The genus Uroplectes (B) are known as Lesser-thicktails or bark scorpions. These are generally small scorpions of a couple of centimetres in length. They too have thick tails and small pincers and a sting from one of these may be very painful, although not life-threatening.
The Burrowers (C) and Creepers (D) are made up of three genera: Opistophthalmus (C) and Opisthacanthusand Cheloctonus (D). These genera have large pincers and medium to small tails. The pain from the sting of these scorpions can be compared to that of a bee sting. They can also pinch pretty hard with their large pincers.
The Plain Pygmy-thicktails in the genus Pseudolychus (E) are small scorpions that usually live in leaf litter and are commonly encountered in houses, especially in Gauteng. The sting burns for a few minutes and then fades away and is less than a wasp sting in pain.
Lastly, we get the Rock Scorpions (F) in the genus Hadogenes. These large scorpions often exceed 20cm in length and are gentle giants, their sting is barely noticeable. It is comparable to the thorns of an Acacia tree, where there is a slight tingling feeling and then becomes itchy. If the scorpion is upset however, those pincers give a good pinch!
The two potentially life-threatening species in southern Africa are: