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Scorpions Share Similar Tastes in Burrow Architecture

by AMNH on

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New research on the burrows of scorpions in diverse environments finds that these predatory arachnids build strikingly similar architectural features in their homes, suggesting that burrows are part of the arachnids’ “extended physiology,” and are vital to their survival in some of the world’s most inhospitable places.

Scorpio palmatus scorpion photographed under ultraviolet light
One of the species in the study, Scorpio palmatus, photographed under ultraviolet light.
© S. Summerfield

“It’s amazing how ubiquitous scorpion burrows are in some parts of the world, yet very little has been done to study them until now,” said Lorenzo Prendini, a curator in the American Museum of Natural History’s Division of Invertebrate Zoology and co-author of the new study.

Scorpion burrows can differ drastically, running the gamut in size and design from short runs to complex spiral tunnels up to 9 feet long to multi-entrance communal structures. Some burrows are used for less than 24 hours, while others serve as a semi-permanent home in which a scorpion can spend most of its life and more than 90 percent of its time.

Digging out the cast of a scorpion burrow
Researchers dig out a metal cast of a burrow made by Scorpio palmatus in the Negev Desert in Israel. 
© A. Adams

"This work is about how burrow architecture can extend an animal’s physiology by performing functions its body would otherwise have to do on its own, like maintaining a comfortable temperature or improving ventilation,” said Berry Pinshow of the Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research at Israel’s Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, who led the new study. 

Published in the journal The Science of Nature, the study used aluminum casts and 3D scanning to find common features in these structures across several scorpion species.

Kiln for melting aluminum
The kiln researchers used to heat aluminum to more than 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit before using it to cast scorpion burrows. 
© A. Adams

To explore how scorpions use their burrows to their advantage, the researchers examined the burrow architecture of three scorpion species from the same family, Scorpionidae. After removing the scorpions from their burrows and taking temperature and humidity measurements at various points along each burrow, the researchers poured molten aluminum down each burrow to create a cast of its intricate structure. These casts were then dug up and scanned to create 3D digital models of the burrow that were analyzed with a computer program.

3D scan of the burrow of the scorpion Opistophthalmus wahlbergii
3D scan of a cast of a burrow dug by the scorpion Opistophthalmus wahlbergii, from the sand dunes of the Kalahari Desert in Namibia. 
© A. Adams

The scientists found three common burrow features: A horizontal platform near the ground surface that might provide a safe place for the scorpion to “doorkeep”—monitor the presence of potential prey, predators, and mates—and warm up before foraging; at least two spiral or switch-back bends that might deter predators from digging them up, or prevent air flow from the surface, thereby maintaining relatively high humidity and low temperature; and an enlarged terminal chamber at a depth at which temperatures are almost constant, providing a refuge during the heat of the day as well as a place to feed, mate, molt, and give birth.

Resin cast of a Scorpio palmatus burrow
A resin cast of a Scorpio palmatus burrow. The scorpion located in the terminal chamber.
© B. Pinshow

“As ectothermic, or so-called ‘cold-blooded,’ animals, scorpions rely on energy from the environment to regulate their internal temperature,” said Amanda Adams, lead author of the publication in The Science of Nature and a former postdoctoral researcher at the Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research who is currently at Texas A&M University. “Various features of the burrow assist the scorpion in meeting the biological challenges of its environment.”

The research team also found that burrow architecture may change in response to soil composition, hardness, and moisture. For example, the burrows the scientists examined from sandy soil were deeper than those from hard soil. 

Although many questions remain unanswered concerning the burrow environment and natural history of burrowing scorpions in general, the shared features of these three species have been shaped by natural selection for millions of years and may be important to understanding other burrowing scorpion species around the world.