As the moon illuminates the earth, scorpions crawl out of hiding, their exoskeletons glowing bright green/yellow under a UV torch due to the special fluorescent pigment in their exoskeleton, writes Samantha du Toit.
One of my favourite things about spending so much time outdoors, and sleeping in a tent, is knowing what phase of the moon it is on any given day. This is not something I think about when we go back to Nairobi, but out in the wilderness you can’t help but see the moon and know which nights you can navigate the path back to the tent without a torch to guide you.
Some nights, as we lie in our tent with the flaps up so we can see outside, there is the complete darkness that comes with a moonless night. Indeed, it can be so dark that it is hard to tell whether my eyes are open or not. Then my other senses sharpen, and sounds and smells become clearer and more useful in piecing together the story outside. Whose footsteps are those crunching carefully through the leaves? Then, on other nights, the moon is so bright it wakes us up and we can see whoever is passing by, from the little mongoose to the large elephant.
All manners of creatures come out only at night, but our favourite ones to look for are the scorpions. During the day we rarely see them, and it is such a surprise therefore to see just how many crawl out of the woodwork, literally, to start their day as the sun goes down. We recently purchased a good ‘black light’ which is a UV torch great for finding scorpions.
To the children’s delight, scorpions glow bright green/yellow under UV light due to a special fluorescent pigment in their exoskeleton. I have not yet managed to find anyone who knows for sure why scorpions have this, but it is thought that they perhaps use it to see each other, warn predators of their venom or to detect the UV rays from the moon and stars, allowing them to know when it might be too bright for them to risk going out hunting, for fear of becoming prey
Most evenings after dinner, we now walk with the black light to our tent and count the number of scorpions we see. Often we count more than thirty on our five minute amble, and we are learning where we are most likely to find them, marvelling at how different they all are. Some stay in the barks of trees and seem to have the larger pincers and smaller tails; we can see these ones still in the same place in the day time, although hidden a little deeper inside their hideouts. Once we even saw two of them having what looked like an arm wrestle, pincers clashing and thrashing around as they tried to displace each other.
Others we find scuttling around the undergrowth. Some big ones seem to have very small pincers and larger tails with sharp stingers on the end, and we make sure to steer clear of them. The children ask often where the scorpions go during the day, and I remind them of how I have mistakenly discovered the answer on more than one occasion. Their favourite story is about the day I once discovered a small scorpion asleep in a hand towel which was hanging on a tree branch outside our lunch tent.
As I used the hand towel to dry my hands (not knowing there was a scorpion nestled on the inside), I must have given the scorpion quite a shock as it stung me on my finger. It was a heavy sting for a small creature and the pain was intense, lasting a long fifteen hours. It then vanished abruptly, leaving me no worse for wear but perhaps a little wiser as to where to check for slumbering scorpions in the future.
Samantha du Toit is a wildlife conservationist, working with SORALO, a Maasai land trust. She lives with her husband, Johann, and their two children at Shompole Wilderness, a tented camp in the Shompole Conservancy