28 July, 2009

Aristotle and scorpions

Did you know that Aristotle was probably the first to publish zoological information about scorpions (although the ancient Egyptians did have medical prescriptions and magical spells to heal scorpion stings)?

“locality is an important
element in regard to the bite of an animal. Thus, in
Pharos and other places, the bite of the scorpion is not
dangerous; elsewhere – in Caria, for instances – where
scorpions are venomous as well as plentiful and of large
size, the sting is fatal to man or beast…”

[Aristotle in Hist. Anim. VIII.29 - translated by D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson, Cited in Fet et al. (2009)]

Victor Fet and co-workers have now published a discussion on Aristotle's scorpion text and show that Aristotle probably wrote about Euscorpius in the Greek colony of Pharos (now Hvar Island, Croatia) and Mesobuthus gibbosus in mainland Greece and their difference in toxicity.

During 2300 years of rather extensive commentary on Aristotle’s works, the sentence in his History of Animals addressing scorpion distribution has escaped scrutiny. We demonstrate that when Aristotle wrote (350 BC) that “in Pharos and other places, the bite of the scorpion is not dangerous”, he most likely meant not the Pharos of Egypt (the later site of the fabled Lighthouse of Alexandria) but the Greek colony of Pharos in the Adriatic Sea, the modern island of Hvar, Croatia. The northern range of toxic scorpions (genus Mesobuthus, fam. Buthidae, common in the Ancient Greece) in the Balkans does not reach Croatia, while non-dangerous species of Euscorpius (fam. Euscorpiidae).

Fet V, El-Hennawy H, Braunwalder ME, Cloudsley Thompson JL. The first observation on scorpion biogeography by Aristoteles. Boletin Sociedad Entomológica Aragonesa. 2009; (44):147-50.

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