Scorpions are arachnids, a class of invertebrate animals in which we also find spiders, ticks and mites.
Scorpions are found on all continents except Antarctica. Over 1,700 species have been identified but only one species is found on our islands.They are easily recognised as they have a pair of segmented claws and a segmented tail that is often kept arched over their back. The end of the tail is a stinging organ that can deliver a poison.
The scorpion is known in Maltese as skorpjun but we also have a Semitic name for it – għakreb – which probably nobody uses anymore.
The Maltese scorpion is a small predator that lives under stones and leaves but is also found in houses, especially in basements.
I have seen more scorpions in houses than in the countryside although this might be because they are nocturnal creatures and keep well hidden during the day.
By being active at night scorpions avoid predators that are active during the day.
They feed on smaller animals, especially insects, and can help in the biological control of harmful insects and pests. Before eating, they kill or paralyse their prey by stinging it and injecting it with poison.
About 25 species of scorpion can deliver a poison that is strong enough to kill a human. However, the poison carried by the Maltese scorpion is very weak: it might be able to kill a small creature but its effect on humans is similar to that of a mosquito bite.
The poison is also used to defend themselves from predators but the poison of the local species is not even strong enough for this. I once saw a wall lizard catching and eating a scorpion without coming to any harm.
For their size, scorpions are long-lived creatures with many species living for four years and with one species believed to have a life span of 25 years.
This article was published in The Times on 27 March 2013.