One evening last month, two bright young lads, supposedly studying zoology in College but actually doing research in their own way, invited me for a scorpion walk. They agreed to provide the instruction while I agreed to provide the college campus in Dapodi, Pune.
Meet Chintan (Solifugi-phile) and Aamod (scorpio-phile). Or rather both are Arachnophiles.
So late that evening, my daughter Aditi and I accompanied them and went in search of scorpions. They had Petzl forehead lamps – small circular discs on a forehead band which blazed white with diode light. These were very interesting to me as I had never seen them before.
For an hour we turned over stones, boulders, twigs and rubble in the large, mostly barren plain behind the student officers quarters with intermittent plants and trees interspersed. Yours truly and mine own had plain yellow torches. We could not find any scorpions.
This is a phenomenon not many realise, the desertification of urban surrounds. The plants were there but the invertebrate life was a miniscule fraction of the average wild area! Worrying.
Anyway, few ants, beetles, millipedes but no scorpions. 😦
Aditi remembered that the patch behind the basketball court in CME is wooded and slightly wild being neglected. So there we went. This time it was open woodland with knee-high grass and shrubs. But there were no scorpions on the ground. CME is a fairly moist area and scorpions generally prefer dry areas. But there was nothing on the woodland floor.
A few hundred metres into the woods we came across a large dry tree-fall with what appeared to be termite mounds around it.
“Aha”, cried the youngsters. “Ideal place to search for Hottentota pachyurus“.
They now brought out a ‘magic lamp’. When switched on it gave an eerie bluish light. This was a Ultraviolet light of a particular wavelength.
If pointed at a scorpion, it will shine a bright yellow-green.
This is because the cuticle of scorpions contains fluorescent chemicals. Strangely, this has not yet developed in the case of juveniles. The chemical, now thought to be a beta-Carboline, helps locate scorpions and a handheld UV light is now the main item of equipment while hunting for scorpions.
It took but a minute of concentrated examination til we heard sounds of success, Aamod scrabbling after a scorpion. It was Mesobuthus pachyurus, or more correctly, Hottentota pachyurus as Mesobuthus is a synonym.
(Please refer revision of Hottentota in Euscorpius by Frantisek Kovařík in 2007. Find it here).
A not uncommon scorpion in Pune region, we had found a female.
Patiently he explained,
“It’s a Hottentota because its a very common genus in South Asia distinguished by a set of characters such as the lyriform configuration of the carapace and keels on the metasoma.”
“It’s pachyurus because of the uniform black body colour expect on fingers of chela which are red in color.”
“It’s female because of the relative thickness of the manus of the chela.”
Greek or Latin? Sounded like that to me. Not to mention that I felt like the ‘chhela’ of this marathi ‘mannoos’!
We went on to find four more female H. Pachy’s on that tree stump wich were collected peered at and released.
A wide circle revealed no more scorpions. Though it was overcast, no rain came and the dark red light reflected off the clouds by Pune city guided us. It as a bit like Mordor!
You would expect a wooded area, akin to a protected area, more than 400 metres in each direction from civilisation with adequate shrubs and grass to have a good insect life! But the same thing happened here too – our wild areas are becoming virtual deserts with an odd oasis in between. Just some vegetation and protection over a few hundred acres gives a nice place but not quite a biodiversity hotspot. Loss of biodiversity occurs not at far away places but far closer to home.
Though our visit was also rewarded by a lizard – The Termite-hill gecko – and the Cricket frog, the rest of the night we circled fruitlessly around and came back to where our vehicles are parked.
Its amazing that almost 104 years after Pocock published his Arachnida volumes as part of the Fauna of British India series (download them from here) , we still don’t have any kind of guide to the Scorpions of India. Even more amazing, these young lads took up the study of these creatures despite the complete lack of literature.
Just shows in India, there is always hope!
As long as we have young men like Amod and Chintan willing to push the envelope, all is well with Indian biodiversity.