Time to give scorpions their due

RHYMES with crazy Lenore Skenazy  thumbnailBY LENORE SKENAZY

Stephanie Loria would like to set the record straight: “If you get stung by a scorpion and you are a healthy adult, you won’t die.” She paused, then added, “You may wish you were dead. But they get such a bad rap.”

Yes, pity the poor scorpions — so misunderstood. Fortunately, the oddball arachnids have Loria on their side. A native of Glendale, Queens, and graduate of New York’s Catholic school system, she is perhaps the city’s only scorpion apologist.

She loves the creatures, researches them, and this fall she got her Ph.D. in scorpion studies from the American Museum of Natural History’s Richard Gilder Graduate School. Other grads included a frog researcher, a bat specialist getting an honorary degree, and a guy who has identified 70 new species of wasps.

Not sure I’d want to be at their Christmas party.

But having never seen an actual scorpion — or scorpion researcher, for that matter — I did want to meet Loria. So the other day I went to the museum and was escorted past dozens of dinosaur-demanding school groups, up to the restricted fifth floor, past hundreds of lockers housing insect specimens, and then through a hall lined with clear plastic boxes containing — OMG!

Tarantulas. Live tarantulas — the size of chipmunks — waving their furry legs at me.

How did “Night at the Museum” miss these guys?

Photo by Lenore Skenazy Stephanie Loria loves scorpions — and wants you to like them too!

Photo by Lenore Skenazy
Stephanie Loria loves scorpions — and wants you to like them too!

One floor up I found Loria in her lab, scorpions at her side — dead.

“We have some live stuff downstairs, but those are more like pets,” she said. “These I actually collected during my trips to Southeast Asia.”

And how does one collect a scorpion? Well, Loria said as cheerfully as a flight attendant, you just have to go into the jungle at night. Scorpions are black, so you can’t see them except by using an ultra-violet flashlight, which makes them phosphoresce like Jimi Hendrix posters. They also shed their exoskeletons. So you look for glowing bits of dead scorpion on the trail leading you to a live one and then, using foot-long tweezers, you try to grab it as fast as you can before it scurries into its borrow.

At that point, says Loria, you often have “moths swarming around your face and you’re swallowing them, and sometimes you’re also near ants, and you’re covered with them, and some of them are pretty nasty.” Long story short, if you don’t manage to grab the scorpion with the tweezers, sometimes you just dig them out.

That’s right: You stick your hands into a scorpion den — hoping you’ll find some.

One time, Loria recalled, she and her advisor were on a nighttime hunt in the Malaysian jungle when suddenly, a scorpion stung him.

“Two of his fingers were paralyzed and he had a burning sensation moving up his arm and into his chest,” says Loria. “It was just me and him in the middle of nowhere.”

Then what happened?

“He took an antihistamine,” says Loria. By the morning, he was fine — but after an agonizing night.

Loria won’t let this prejudice you against scorpions. There are 2,200 species of them, she says, and only 45 have poisonous venom. What’s more, they can live up to 25 years, and are members of the arachnid family, like spiders, but less popular. At arachnid conventions (I know, I know), “85 to 95 percent of the talks are about spiders,” says Loria, bummed. Scorpions get no respect. And yet, they have been around since before the dinosaurs.

In her own pre-history, Loria grew up digging millipedes and centipedes out of her backyard and bringing them inside, to her parents non-delight. She had an ant farm, a moth farm, and a grammar school teacher who showed her rubber replicas of bugs and encouraged her curiosity. One time, Loria wore a dead cicada’s shell on her nose to freak out her schoolmates.

It worked.

But Loria wasn’t really trying to disgust anyone. She was just fascinated by the “behind the scenes” work that insects and arachnids do.

“If you watch any nature shows on TV, it’s always about big cats, or other mammals we relate to.” But the real heroes, she says, are the smaller creatures we rely on. Bees pollinate. Millipedes help decomposition. Spiders and scorpions keep the insect population down.

By high school, she was taking after-school classes at the Museum of Natural History and did an internship studying flamingo behavior.

Now that she has her Ph.D., she is heading to San Fran to start studying the evolution of scorpion venom. Her future looks so bright, she has to pinch herself.

Before anything else does.

Lenore Skenazy is a keynote speaker, founder of the book and blog Free-Range Kids, and a contributor at Reason.com.

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One Response to Time to give scorpions their due

  1. maryanne braverman

    What a great story of a fascinating scientist! Thanks, Lenore.

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