A couple of years ago, I stopped to do some trail tending on the way down from Tamanawas Falls, on the Cold Spring Creek trail. It was dusk, and I was moving some rocks around to improve the tread in a gravelly area, on a slope just above the rushing creek. I spotted what looked like an oval coin, where I had just turned over a rock. Closer inspection revealed a pair of pincers and a tail, perfectly coiled up and tucked in around an armored body.
I thought it might be a crayfish that had somehow made its way up the slope to the trail. But suddenly, the creature exploded into motion, bolting to the top of a nearby rock at a speed that no crayfish could reach out of water. At that point, the tail was extended, and I realized I was looking at a scorpion!
It was nearly dark, so I quickly set up my tripod, as the scorpion sat motionless for me — apparently agreeable to an unscheduled portrait. The first view (above) was his semi-alert position that he held until I moved the camera closer for a better shot. At that point, he went into what can only be described as a “defensive” posture (below), and I must say that this sent some of my primal neurons into overdrive!
I snapped a couple more shots of this pose before he abruptly raced up the slope — right past my foot, alarmingly — and into the brush. It was exhilarating because I don’t often stumble upon some new creature that I haven’t seen before, and especially one this exotic and seemingly out-of-place. What was a scorpion doing in a lush, mountain canyon along a rushing stream? Aren’t they desert dwellers?
After the trip, I researched scorpions a bit, and learned that they do, indeed, inhabit the Cascades as far north as British Columbia. Though I have yet to positively identify this one, it appears to be Paruroctonus boreus, the Northern Scorpion, or possibly one of the Vaejovis scorpion species native to Oregon. Its body was about 2″ in length, claws roughly an inch long, and the tail around 2″ long.
Oregon State University zoologist Philip Brownell provides helpful background in this article on just how scorpions could survive in a place like Cold Spring canyon, where deep snow covers the ground for months every winter. The key is their unique metabolic ability go into stasis in underground burrows, using little oxygen and requiring little food until conditions on the surface improve. But unlike other hibernating creatures, scorpions can quickly switch from stasis to active hunting in a matter of minutes.
Scorpions are live-bearing, with the female carrying her brood on her back until their first molt, upon which they head off on their own. If you get the creepy-crawlies from the sight of scorpions, I don’t suggest Googling images of a female ferrying her batch of young one around! They’re also nocturnal, so you’re unlikely to ever see one in the Cascades.
And what of the dreaded venom? Well, the Northern Scorpion’s venom is listed as a potentially dangerous neurotoxin for humans by some sources, with swelling and pain at the site of the sting, and possibly other more serious reactions. So it’s pretty clear that these creatures are to be seen, but not handled.
According to the National Geographic article link, above, the toxicity of the venom is inversely proportional to the size of the pincers, since large-clawed scorpions tend to hunt their insect prey with their claws, where small-clawed species are more likely to depend on their venom to immobilize their prey.
The spot where I found my specimen was classic habitat for Northern scorpion, according to several web sources. This species apparently lives on dry, loose riverbank slopes in much of its range. So that means that the entire Cold Spring Creek canyon is prime habitat, not to mention most every other canyon in this part of the Cascades.
So, keep that in mind, next time you’re turning over stones in the woods!