Nav: Home

What's your poison? Scrupulous scorpions tailor venom to target

June 10, 2019

Replenishing venom takes time and energy - so it pays to be stingy with stings.

According to researchers at the Australian National Institute of Tropical Health and Medicine, scorpions adapt their bodies, their behavior and even the composition of their venom, for efficient control of prey and predators.

Writing in Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, they say it's not just the size of the stinger, but also how it's used that matters.

Stingy stingers

"Scorpions can store only a limited volume of venom, that takes time and energy to replenish after use," says lead author Edward Evans. "Meanwhile the scorpion has a reduced capacity to capture prey or defend against predators, so the costs of venom use are twofold."

As a result, over 400 million years of evolution scorpions have developed a variety of strategies to minimize venom use.

The most obvious of these is to avoid using venom at all.

"Research has shown the lighter, faster male specimens of one species are more likely to flee from danger compared to the heavier-bodied females, rather than expend energy using toxins," notes Evans. "Others - particularly burrowing species - depend instead on their large claws or 'pedipalps', and have a small, seldom-used stinging apparatus."

When immobility, threat or lively prey forces venom use, scorpions can adjust the volume they inject - both within each sting and through the application of multiple stings.

"Scorpions can hold prey in their pedipalps and judiciously apply stings, just until it stops struggling."

At the other extreme, when the survival stakes are high some species abandon precision and spray their venom through the air.

"Spraying venom defensively is potentially wasteful but can avoid dangerous close contact with predators such as grasshopper mice, which disarm scorpions by biting off their tails."

Venom versatility

Scorpions can also tailor the composition of their venom to a target - both on-the-fly, and more precisely over weeks of exposure.

For starters, any given sting has three levels: dry, prevenom or venom.

As a light deterrent, a scorpion may sting with no venom at all. A 'wet' sting begins with clear, salty prevenom - essentially a "stun" setting - and might go no further.

"Research on prevenom suggests it contains an extremely high potassium salt concentration, which may cause quick paralysis in insects and pain in vertebrates," says Evans. "It seems to regenerate quickly and presumably at a low metabolic cost."

If things get heavy, the scorpion can go on to inject or spray a thick, milky, protein-rich venom.

"Venom injection is reserved for more active, persistent or sizeable targets. It is more toxic, but once spent can take weeks to replenish - leaving the scorpion vulnerable and with limited prey options."

Recent work by the James Cook University group suggests that scorpions can make more personalized changes to venom composition, in response to extended periods of predator exposure.

"Repeated encounters with a surrogate vertebrate predator - a taxidermied mouse - over a six week period led the scorpion Hormurus waigiensis to produce a higher relative abundance of a particular group of toxins, including some with vertebrate predator-specific activity," explains senior author Dr. David Wilson.

How exactly the change occurs remains unknown, however.

"Future work is needed to investigate how far observed changes in venom composition and use are due to adaptive responses - and to identify the precise stimuli for change," Wilson and Evans conclude.
Please link to the original research article in your reporting:

Corresponding authors: Edward R. J. Evans,; David T. Wilson,

Frontiers is an award-winning Open Science platform and leading open-access scholarly publisher. Our mission is to make high-quality, peer-reviewed research articles rapidly and freely available to everybody in the world, thereby accelerating scientific and technological innovation, societal progress and economic growth. Frontiers received the 2014 ALPSP Gold Award for Innovation in Publishing. For more information, visit and follow @Frontiersin on Twitter.


Related Evolution Articles:

Artificial evolution of an industry
A research team has taken a deep dive into the newly emerging domain of 'forward-looking' business strategies that show firms have far more ability to actively influence the future of their markets than once thought.
Paleontology: Experiments in evolution
A new find from Patagonia sheds light on the evolution of large predatory dinosaurs.
A window into evolution
The C4 cycle supercharges photosynthesis and evolved independently more than 62 times.
Is evolution predictable?
An international team of scientists working with Heliconius butterflies at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) in Panama was faced with a mystery: how do pairs of unrelated butterflies from Peru to Costa Rica evolve nearly the same wing-color patterns over and over again?
Predicting evolution
A new method of 're-barcoding' DNA allows scientists to track rapid evolution in yeast.
Insect evolution: Insect evolution
Scientists at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitaet (LMU) in Munich have shown that the incidence of midge and fly larvae in amber is far higher than previously thought.
Evolution of aesthetic dentistry
One of the main goals of dental treatment is to mimic teeth and design smiles in the most natural and aesthetic manner, based on the individual and specific needs of the patient.
An evolution in the understanding of evolution
In an open-source research paper, a UVA Engineering professor and her former Ph.D. student share a new, more accurate method for modeling evolutionary change.
Chemical evolution -- One-pot wonder
Before life, there was RNA: Scientists at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitaet (LMU) in Munich show how the four different letters of this genetic alphabet could be created from simple precursor molecules on early Earth -- under the same environmental conditions.
Catching evolution in the act
Researchers have produced some of the first evidence that shows that artificial selection and natural selection act on the same genes, a hypothesis predicted by Charles Darwin in 1859.
More Evolution News and Evolution Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Teaching For Better Humans 2.0
More than test scores or good grades–what do kids need for the future? This hour, TED speakers explore how to help children grow into better humans, both during and after this time of crisis. Guests include educators Richard Culatta and Liz Kleinrock, psychologist Thomas Curran, and writer Jacqueline Woodson.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#556 The Power of Friendship
It's 2020 and times are tough. Maybe some of us are learning about social distancing the hard way. Maybe we just are all a little anxious. No matter what, we could probably use a friend. But what is a friend, exactly? And why do we need them so much? This week host Bethany Brookshire speaks with Lydia Denworth, author of the new book "Friendship: The Evolution, Biology, and Extraordinary Power of Life's Fundamental Bond". This episode is hosted by Bethany Brookshire, science writer from Science News.
Now Playing: Radiolab

One of the most consistent questions we get at the show is from parents who want to know which episodes are kid-friendly and which aren't. So today, we're releasing a separate feed, Radiolab for Kids. To kick it off, we're rerunning an all-time favorite episode: Space. In the 60's, space exploration was an American obsession. This hour, we chart the path from romance to increasing cynicism. We begin with Ann Druyan, widow of Carl Sagan, with a story about the Voyager expedition, true love, and a golden record that travels through space. And astrophysicist Neil de Grasse Tyson explains the Coepernican Principle, and just how insignificant we are. Support Radiolab today at