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Scorpions: Friend or Foe? (Grades 6-10)

Scorpion researcher Lorenzo Prendini has had more than his share of death-defying experiences. But surprisingly, most have had nothing to do with the scorpions he collects.

Scorpions are found on every continent except Antarctica, although desert habitats hold the greatest diversity. The places where scorpions can be found tend to be very harsh environments," says Prendini, a scientist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Risks like exposure to dangerous tropical diseases, deadly snakes, and oven like heat are all part of the job, he says. Prendini has braved them all on the way to discovering more than 70 new species of scorpions.

SCORPION SURPRISES
Scorpions are relatives of spiders. These eight-legged arachnids have lobster-like pincers and their bodies can grow up to 20 centimeters (8 inches) long.

Unlike most invertebrates, female scorpions give birth to live young and are nurturing mothers. "We found a scorpion in Mexico that arranges the babies on her back and transports them around, like passengers on a bus," says Prendini. Some scorpions even feed and care for their young for up to two years.

VALUABLE VENOM
Scorpions, however, are probably best known not for their motherly love, but for their frightening tails-which are topped with venomous stingers. By injecting venom into its victim, the scorpion can catch a meal or defend itself if it feels threatened.

Each scorpion species has its own unique venom made up of a complex mixture of chemicals. Most scorpion venoms are harmless to people. Out of 1,500 known species of scorpions, only about 25 are dangerous, says Prendini. "Healthy adults would probably survive scorpion stings by even the most venomous species," he says. Still, 800 people die worldwide each year from scorpion stings. Children and the elderly are most at risk.

Some scorpion venoms can actually be beneficial to humans. Scientists recently found one type that can be used to treat brain cancer. When administered properly, certain chemicals in the scorpion venom kill cancer cells, but leave a person's healthy cells unharmed.

The search for medicinal uses of scorpion venom has just begun. "I have no doubt that as we learn more about scorpion venoms we will discover more uses," Prendini says.

ENVIRONMENTAL INDICATORS
Another reason Prendini studies scorpions is that the creatures hold clues about the environment around them. Scorpions stick close to the specific habitat they're adapted to. By studying DNA and the physical characteristics of various scorpion species that have lived in a region over thousands of years, Prendini hopes he'll be able to determine how the world's ecosystems have changed over time.

Plus, scorpions are very sensitive to environmental changes. Prendini can judge the state of an ecosystem by looking at scorpion populations. If scorpions are sick or dying off, the ecosystem is probably in trouble.

In many areas, human activities like agriculture and mining have negatively altered scorpions' habitat. As a result, several scorpion species are endangered. That's a sign that many other plant and animal species are likely facing environmental pressures and are at risk of dying off too.

LOSING TIME
"Fewer than half of all the world's species are known to science and we're destroying their habitats faster than we discover them," says Prendini. For both humans and scorpions, the stakes are high.

We stand to gain so much from studying species-even ones with bad reputations, like the scorpion, says Prendini.

By Elizabeth Carney

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