Shelley Batts (a ScienceBlogger) posted some com­ments on dif­fer­ent kinds of stings, along with a scale for rat­ing which hurt the most. That led me to muse on some of my own expe­ri­ences with our local pointy objects.

Arizona’s ter­ri­tory — on the west­ern side — is pretty much entirely com­prised of the Mojave Desert. With a very few ripar­ian excep­tions, this means that for the most part you’ll find flora and fauna opti­mized to sur­vive in arid cli­mates, though not quite as com­pletely sere as, say, the deep Sahara.

Over the next few decades, we might see some shifts toward increased deser­ti­fi­ca­tion — the damming of the Colorado removed a major source of aquifer recharge in the form of peri­odic flood­ing, and Phoenix, Las Vegas and most of Southern California are putting a tremen­dous strain on water resources. Reduction of ripar­ian zones has led to a reduc­tion in atmos­pheric humid­ity, which has had quite a neg­a­tive effect on rain­fall. The Colorado, which used to flow all the way to the Gulf of California, now peters out miles away from its orig­i­nal delta, which is essen­tially a dry washbed today.

The net is that the deser­ti­fi­ca­tion process is being accel­er­ated. This part of the US is one of the few areas where real estate val­ues will prob­a­bly go into an irrecov­er­able tail­spin and acreage might one day be worth about as much — and be about as hab­it­able to humans — as a plot of land on, say, a remote moun­tain peak. Damming the river has damned the Mojave.

In this part of the world most of the life sur­vives by being sca­ley, hard and/​or pos­sessed of sharp edges. Think of the desert tor­toise — essen­tially mid­way between a Galapagos tor­toise and a box tur­tle — or the horned lizard (“horny toad”) and you’ll have an idea what I mean. For the most part, this wildlife is harm­less to humans, but some of it can be nasty if it ends up in the same place as we are.

How nasty? Well, that depends on your definition.

In the scale Shelley pub­lished, for instance, paper wasps were placed at a 3 for sting pain (the scale just goes up to 4). I don’t know if I’d agree with it; the pain might be rel­a­tive. I got pegged by a paper wasp a few years ago (for­tu­nately, it was happy with the one sting and didn’t feel a need to repeat the per­for­mance). It felt like some­one had jabbed a hot sol­der­ing iron into my shoulder.

There was a deep and per­sis­tent burn­ing sen­sa­tion that went on long after the sting, but was by no means excru­ci­at­ing, though I sup­pose if I’d been hit on the ear­lobe or lip I might have a dif­fer­ent opin­ion. It hurt, sure, and I wouldn’t want to be stung again, par­tic­u­larly not more than once; but it wasn’t blind­ing agony.

I was advised to look out for signs of blood poi­son­ing and tetanus; appar­ently wasps are poten­tial car­ri­ers of some nasty microorganisms.

There are a cou­ple other fly­ing insects larger than paper wasps that live in this part of the world and which can deliver stings if pro­voked. The more men­ac­ing of the two is the taran­tula wasp, a large black crea­ture that’s actu­ally quite beau­ti­ful, as long as it’s far enough away to remain an abstraction.

Tarantula wasps can delil­ver a potent sting, but they ordi­nar­ily tar­get taran­tu­las (hence the name). Their venom par­a­lyzes the spi­der and the wasp lays an egg inside the still-​​living arach­nid. When the egg hatches the larvum devours the taran­tula, matures and emerges as another wasp.*

There are also some rather large and intim­i­dat­ing bees (mostly of the leaf­cut­ter vari­ety), but for the most part they’re harm­less to humans. They’re soli­tary rather than hive-​​dwellers, and for that rea­son much less likely to sting. They are, how­ever, huge — an inch or more in size — and can star­tle you with their casual, buzzing hov­er­ing behav­ior. As tempt­ing as it might be, defense with a ten­nis racket is prob­a­bly not the best idea.

Mostly around here (NW AZ) I’ve been stung by the local large black ants, har­vester vari­ety. (The Mojave Desert also has the red vari­ety, but mostly up here they’re black.) They’re pretty aggres­sive if you come across a nest or trail and dis­turb it deliberately.

They’re not ambush-​​style preda­tors, though; it’s easy to avoid them if you’re pay­ing atten­tion. Harvester colonies are char­ac­ter­ized by a good-​​sized patch of bare earth around the anthole, denuded by the efforts of the insects. A good-​​sized colony can occupy a few cubic yards of soil, aer­at­ing and replen­ish­ing its car­bon and organic con­tent, and at a safe dis­tance watch­ing the ants at work can be fas­ci­nat­ing. They move fairly quickly and — typ­i­cal of most ant colonies — in an appar­ently dis­or­ga­nized way which still man­ages to get a tremen­dous amount of work done.

Usually I’ve been hit in the knees because I’ve stood still too long near a colony, and one has man­aged to crawl up my leg with­out my notic­ing. The knee is how high they usu­ally climb before becom­ing con­stricted by cloth­ing and pan­ick­ing. The stings feel a lit­tle like being poked repeat­edly by a straight pin. Getting my ear­lobes pierced hurt less than the ant stings, but was about the same as their pincers.

For other some­what scary ground-​​dwellers we have taran­tu­las, solifuges and scor­pi­ons. Of the three the most dan­ger­ous is prob­a­bly the generic scor­pion, though it’s just the bark scor­pion that is truly ven­omous enough to be a dan­ger to non-​​allergic humans. In gen­eral scor­pi­ons stay quite clear of humans in the wild; they have cil­i­ated pads on the under­side of the abdomen that allow them to feel your foot­steps when you’re still quite a dis­tance away. They’ll rec­og­nize you’re very large and try to keep well away from you.

Often scor­pi­ons will hide in dense under­brush, beneath rocks or fallen limbs; san­dals or bare feet are a ter­ri­ble idea for walk­ing through a lot of the Mojave, which is char­ac­ter­ized by such things as cre­osote, cac­tus patches and Joshua trees. Boots are de rigeur here.

Tarantulas are also ven­omous but not par­tic­u­larly aggres­sive most of the time, except dur­ing the mat­ing sea­son (around August). They pre­fer to keep clear of humans but can some­times end up inside by mis­take. Fortunately they’re fairly slow-​​moving spi­ders over large dis­tances and can be cap­tured eas­ily under an inverted bowl. They’re web­less preda­tors that con­trol crea­tures such as crick­ets and are good to have around, though I expect their bite could be painful.

I’ve kept taran­tu­las before; they’re sim­ply not very dan­ger­ous to humans and their fear­some rep­u­ta­tion is largely unde­served. These spi­ders don’t tend to bite unless they’re pro­voked, and they open their che­licerae to dis­play long, glossy black fangs in a dis­tinc­tively threat­en­ing fash­ion. The inten­tion is clear: keep back, you big hair­less mon­key.

Non-​​venomous but spooky, the solifuge (“sun spi­der”) runs fast, is desert-​​sand col­ored, and pos­sessed of an extremely impres­sive set of mouth­parts. Like taran­tu­las, they’re web­less preda­tors, but they aren’t actu­ally spi­ders. Their bod­ies can get up to a cou­ple inches in length and, while they don’t enven­o­mate, I wouldn’t want to be hit by one. (There is also a Magic card, Giant Solifuge, which has inspired me to build an Arizona-​​wildlife theme deck. I’ll post on that at some future date.)

These are also rel­a­tively aggres­sive; I was once chased by one. Unfortunately I had to kill it.

Somewhere between paper wasps and har­vester ants, pain-​​index-​​wise, is jump­ing cholla,** partly because you usu­ally get sev­eral spines in the leg, not just one, and because the spines are barbed and tend to hurt more going out than in. Removing them with­out tools (à la kitchen tongs) is a fur­ther guar­an­tee of more spines in your fin­gers and thumbs.

Generally I get cholla pads when I’ve passed just a lit­tle too close to one on a hike. A foot or so of dis­tance should be enough, but it’s a good plan to give cholla as wide a berth as you can man­age with­out look­ing like a com­plete coward.

The cactus’s ratio­nale is prop­a­ga­tion. The rea­son for the long, barbed spines and the jump­ing behav­ior is pre­cisely what hap­pens — the pads embed them­selves in the flesh of pass­ing ani­mals. At some point later the ani­mal works the pad free and, opti­mally, allows a new cac­tus to take root some­where else. This is con­sid­er­ably less pleas­ant than embed­ding seeds in sug­ary fruit, but it obvi­ously works.

Cactus spines, by the way, are all that remain of their leaves.

This isn’t an exhaus­tive list, of course, nor is it meant to be; there are plenty of other chiti­nous crea­tures in the Mojave which are actu­ally or poten­tially dan­ger­ous, as well as rep­tiles to watch out for. But those are gen­er­ally well-​​known and obvi­ous — I thought it might be inter­est­ing to cover, here, some of the lesser celebri­ties in our index of pointy-​​pokey life.

As for deal­ing with it — well, I’m here, and I’ve dealt with it for the major­ity of my life. It helps to view these crea­tures not as men­aces or pests, but rather as ani­mals which have evolved ele­gantly into their eco­log­i­cal niches (taran­tu­las, for instance, are so suc­cess­ful that they haven’t changed sig­nif­i­cantly for tens of mil­lions of years), and which can be seen to have a beauty that, once it’s stud­ied and under­stood, is not so much some­thing to fear as a thing to respect — and, per­haps, admire.


* All together now: It’s the cii­i­i­ir­rrr–cll­l­lle of lii­i­i­i­i­i­i­ife … and it mooooooooo–ves us allllllllllll…

** There really is such a thing. Anyone who insists there are no jump­ing cacti is wrong. I con­sider jump­ing cholla and mos­qui­toes to be two ele­gant proofs of the nonex­is­tence of a benev­o­lent god. Petulant, child­ish and psy­chotic, maybe. Benevolent? Between malaria and the feel­ing of yank­ing cholla out of your flesh, hell no.


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