Eyes widened and jaws fell as contestants on Sunday’s episode of The Amazing Race took on the challenge of digging for scorpions in Botswana’s Kalahari Desert—then watched in bewilderment as their Bushmen escorts put the scorpions in their mouths.
The show never made it completely clear why anyone would put a venomous creepy crawler in their mouths. One bushman said the mouth action was for “cleaning” the insect. The contestants themselves cooked up other possible scenarios. A horrified Joey Graceffa, who almost fainted at the idea of touching one, wondered if perhaps the environment of a human mouth might paralyze the scorpion. Contestant Caroline Cutbirth was sure the goal was to put the scorpion to sleep before the next step in the challenge—letting the arachnid nestle in her hand, then dropping it into a jar. “Goodnight!” she told the scorpion as she slid it into the bottle.
Or maybe … human saliva might tame a scorpion?
To find out more, we turned to Lorenzo Prendini, the curator of of Arachnida in the invertebrate zoology division at American Museum of Natural History.
Prendini, who studied scorpions in Africa and is a South African native himself, says that first of all, human saliva would not paralyze a scorpion. And he said it would be “far-fetched” that the animal would enter a calm state because of the dark, cave-like insides of the human mouth. While scorpions in the desert need to retain some humidity, they are much more tolerant of dry conditions.
At any rate, he could not imagine a good reason for putting a scorpion in your mouth unless you were planning to eat it (scorpion kebabs are an Asian delicacy). Although … it does make for extremely entertaining television.
That brings us to our next question—how did the bushmen manage to not get stung? Well, that depends how aggressive the species is.
“[The Scorpionidae family] is more docile, and they tend to be characterized by large pincers, a slim metasoma or ‘tail’ that is very narrow,” Prendini said. “The venom is comparatively weak in the animal.”
That means that while a sting may still hurt, it is much less dangerous than that of the more aggressive and venomous Buthidae, distinguished by delicate pincers and robust tails.
The scorpion on The Amazing Race, he noted, “is Opistophthalmus wahlbergi (family Scorpionidae), a common species in the Kalahari Desert. This scorpion is harmless—its venom is very mild—as painful as, or less painful, than a wasp sting. You will notice that the man is holding the scorpion by the stinger so that it is unable to sting him in the mouth. However, before he puts it in his mouth, it is grabbing hold of his finger with its powerful pedipalp chelae, or pincers, which is probably quite painful. It may be able to grab his lips or his tongue with those strong chelae. I’m not sure how he avoids getting his mouth pinched!”
The key to not getting stung, Prendini added, is to not alarm the scorpion. Though, we should warn you, don’t try any of this at home! —Linda Poon