Timid scorpion species identified in the UAE for the first time

Tiny arachnid has been found in an irrigated part of Al Ain rich in insects

A male Orthochirus glabrifrons scorpion at Wadi Saham in Fujairah. Photo: Balazs Buzas
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A scorpion species has been identified by scientists in the UAE, bringing to at least 14 the number of species of these arachnids now known to be found in the country.

Characterised by its dark colour, Orthochirus glabrifrons has long been known to be present in Oman.

But now, for the first time, researchers have identified the species in neighbouring areas of the Emirates too.

While there are numerous types of scorpion, spider and snake in the UAE, experts have said that the safety risks to people are low.

The arachnid, which measures at most a few centimetres in length, is found in eastern parts of the country, often in areas of higher altitude, the research published in the journal Euscorpius reveals.

It has been discovered, for example, in lower hillside areas of the Hajar Mountains in Fujairah, in an area of Al Ain where irrigation attracts insects that the scorpions eat, and in the remains of an early settlement in Ras Al Khaimah with "good hiding spots". The creatures also live in northern and north-eastern Oman.

O. glabrifrons was identified in the UAE when experts examined previously collected museum specimens and newly found examples.

"The species was described in Oman and previously was known only from there," said Balazs Buzas, an author of the study who carried out fieldwork in the UAE as part of the research.

"From the 57 species of this genus [Orthochirus], only three species are living in the whole Arabian Peninsula, therefore it’s an important addition to the UAE fauna."

Characterised by having eight legs, a segmented tail and pincers, scorpions are nocturnal predators and, around the world, there are nearly 2,000 species.

Telling scorpions apart

Identifying a scorpion is far from simple, typically requiring microscopic examination of the chelicerae, the paired appendages in front of the mouth that may be used to hold prey, and sensory hairs called trichobothria, the number and position of which varies between species.

As a result, it is not easy for amateurs to know which species a specimen belongs to, according to Dr Andrew Gardner, associate director for biodiversity conservation at Emirates Nature – WWF.

"Knowledge of the UAE scorpions is still very incomplete and so it is certainly not surprising that new species, or new records of known species, are reported," Dr Gardner added.

"It is certainly significant that we now know that these black scorpions, which are quite common in the UAE mountains, are Orthochirus glabifrons."

Dr Gardner was not one of the authors of the new study, but among the scorpions analysed as part of the research were specimens that he collected in Oman, as far back as in the early 1990s.

Researchers announced earlier this year that they had identified what was thought to be a Orthochirus species during work at Wadi Wurayah National Park in April, and the new study confirms that these scorpions, along with others collected in previous years, are O. glabirons.

Unlikely to be a threat

He indicated that O. glabifrons was unlikely to be a threat to people as it was very small and its pincers were weak and unable to pinch humans.

"The sting [is] not dangerous but I suspect it would be quite painful," he said. "Scorpions are nocturnal and don’t tend to live in cities, so most people in the UAE have never see one.

"Campers sometimes get stung when a scorpion gets into clothes or shoes, or if not being careful when collecting firewood."

Dr Ersen Aydın Yagmur, of Manisa Celal Bayar University in Turkey, an author of the new study, said that residents may not know which species have venom that can affect people and which do not. The UAE did, he said, have a number of dangerous scorpion species.

"Therefore people who see scorpions should stay away from these animals," he said. "Besides, some people may be allergic to the venom of the scorpions. Even if the venom is weak, a scorpion sting can cause death."

Dr Gardner said that people may be surprised at how abundant scorpions are in some areas with wadis or mountains. "Shining a UV light around in these areas picks up scorpions in very few metres," he said. "People should be careful when putting on shoes etc when camping and otherwise leave them alone."

He said that habitat loss in the region would "certainly affect species" but there is a lack of population data or good distribution information.

Climate change is unlikely to affect scorpions in the UAE or Oman, Mr Buzas said, as they prefer a hot and dry climate.

"In other continents, for example in Europe, the region is getting warmer and this creates more favourable living conditions for accidentally introduced North African scorpion species," he said.

Updated: October 14, 2023, 7:22 AM