A scorpionfest at the Witsand Nature Reserve

Posted by Jonathan Leeming on 15 February 2012

I left Tswalu and headed off to Witsand Nature Reserve in the Northern Cape to visit some long time friends, Jeanene and Richard Jessnitz. I started visiting the reserve about 20 years ago, and it immediately became one of my favourite scorpion and spider hunting grounds.

Witsand has a special place in my heart. Richard is the resident field guide who shares a common passion for the smaller creatures. I’d normally welcome rain in the Kalahari but the frequent showers were disrupting my nocturnal scorpion hunting activities. Scorpions prefer not to venture out when it’s raining but are active a couple of days after rain. The Kalahari sand system is a global hotspot for scorpion diversity, however the weather-induced absence of scorpion activity was frustrating to the say the least. It was like being an Easter egg hunt with a mean grandfather who didn’t hide any eggs – very frustrating and not very fruitful.

That afternoon the wind picked up and a brief pattering of rain fell. The wind died, rain stopped, darkness fell and conditions were near perfect! Armed with 12-inch forceps, cameras, containers, UV torches and a sense of adventure, Richard and I ventured off into the darkness in search of one of the planets most misunderstood creatures.

It wasn’t 50 metres before we had found two Parabuthus granulatus, Southern Africa’s most venomous scorpions. Large, impressively bad tempered scorpions that I think are the Mike Tyson of the scorpion world. Both of them were hunting for prey, foraging in a clearing next to a road. After following one of the little guys for a short while it disappeared down an aardvark burrow, the other we collected for later inspection.

P. granulatus demand the utmost respect. Every bit of care must be taken to pop them securely into a container (thanks to 12-inch forceps). These guys are unusual scorpions because they actively forage for prey rather than ambushing prey as is the case with most scorpion species. I always say that working with highly venomous creatures that could so easily put you in hospital for a week requires the utmost respect. The instant you don’t give them the respect they deserve, they remind you who the boss is. It’s a very steep learning curve with valuable lessons to be learnt along the way.

Richard and I arrived at the white sand dunes and were immediately surrounded by a welcoming party of Parabuthus raudus, a large, highly venomous and aggressive species not to be toyed with. Under white light these sandy coloured scorpions are impossible to see however, under ultraviolet light they stood out like illuminated Christmas decorations scurrying off into the darkness. At one point we stopped and found ourselves surrounded by five large individuals with a four-metre radius from where we were standing.

Female scorpions leave behind pheromones which one of the males was searching for using strange appendages underneath his body called pectines. Scorpions are the only creatures with pectines which are used to detect nearby females as well as the texture and hardness of the ground. An amorous male had picked up the presence of a nearby female and was searching for her. He eventually bumped into her and was met by an aggressive response and made a hasty retreat. Something I could relate to. The other scorpions were hunting for prey from underneath tussocks of grass with open pincers, ready to snap at anything venturing too close. Placing the UV torch near a hungry scorpion attracts moths which the scorpion snaps at providing endless amounts of fun (not if you are a moth).

We also found Opistophthalmus wahlbergii in the sand dunes. He was munching on a beetle and didn’t seem to mind the camera flashes and ultraviolet light being shone into his 8 primitive eyes. After a few minutes of photographing scorpions under ultraviolet light we caught some bubbling kasina in the surface water and went searching for white lady spiders to no avail.

The dunes at Witsand average about 70 metres in depth but hold an underground treasure: 1211 million cubic meters of water are stashed under the dune system supplying water to neighbouring farms, leeching the sand of its colouration and causing the white sand dunes that are its namesake. The water also attracts lightening strikes causing shafts of fused silica called fulgerites which can be found where ever lightening strikes the ground.

After a couple of nearby flashes of lightening, Richard and I quickly decided that looking for dangerously venomous scorpions in the dunes in a lightning storm was probably not a clever idea so we promptly headed for home. On the way back we bumped into another Parabuthus granulatus which was a stern reminder for me to rather wear closed shoes for tomorrow evenings ultra violet foray into the dunes. At least they had rubber sole which may have helped in the case of a lightning strike.