Photos by Michael McLarty
Emperor Scorpion Captive Care Overview
Emperor scorpions Pandinus imperator have long been one of the easiest, and most popular arachnids to keep in captivity. Their acclaim existed even before they made their large screen debut in the wildly popular Universal Pictures movie, “The Scorpion King.” Since that time, many people have pursued the dream of obtaining one of these fascinating creatures. Within the herpetoculture industry, these scorpions are already well-known, and have been kept, maintained, and even bred for quite some time. That being said, it is widely accepted and acknowledged that most of the Emperors in captivity today are wild-caught imports. After all, it’s far easier and more cost-effective for wholesalers to import these coveted arachnids than it is to search and find people who are breeding them in captivity with any regularity. It is due to this fact alone, why they are listed on the CITES II index; meaning this and the other two species of Pandinus spp being imported for sale are now considered a “species to be watched.” My observation is that since CITES made this proclamation, I have seen a marked decrease in the sheer quantity available in the pet trade.
Emperor Scorpion Description
If for whatever reason you have somehow managed to avoid seeing the movie or previews and trailers for “The Scorpion King,” then I will describe Pandinus imperator for you. P. imperator is sometimes described by some as a huge, black scorpion with pincers (properly known as pedipalps) that look as though they could snap a pencil or perhaps even an unwary finger.
I describe them as a larger, almost lacquered, black-looking scorpion with large pedipalps and fine sensory hairs that cover the body. Speaking of pedipalps, it is a known fact that if a Scorpion has large pedipalps, the venom is always less toxic when compared with those species that have smaller pedipalps. A technical description would be that they measure at an adult size of 20cm; pregnant females have weighed in at 32 grams and all P. imperator are black in color.
Describing the specifics of the scorpion’s physiology is somewhat difficult. Looking down on any scorpion, the first part of the body most would notice are the “arms.” The large, somewhat bulbous shape where the claw is located is known overall as the “chelae.” The movable piece of the chelae is the “tarsus,” while the other is called the “manus.” From the tip of the chela, or pincers, to where it meets the body is known as the pedipalps. The mouthparts are located directly in between the pedipalps and are known as “chelicerae.” These are what the scorpion uses to tear off bits of food that it has caught.
The next most recognizable section to most would be the “metasoma,” or tail, which consists of segments that begin immediately at the edge of the body and stretch to the all- too-famous stinger, which is actually two separate parts. The large bulb where the scorpions’ venom is stored is known as the “Vesicle,” while the stinging point itself is known as the “Aculeus.” The two parts together are known as the “telson.”
Taxonomy of Emperor Scorpion
The taxonomy of the genus Pandinus is one that currently holds within it 24 species,[i] three of which are readily available in the herpetoculture industry. Pandinus imperator, P. cavimanus, & P. viatorus are the most commonly available species when it comes to African scorpions. The P. imperator is the Emperor scorpion. The two other species that are commonly found for sale are the P. cavimanus, which is normally sold under the name of “Tasmanian Red Claw Scorpion” while the other P. viatorus is commonly sold as the “African Red Claw Scorpion.” These other two species are somewhat easily identified because they are an accurate physical representation of their common names and they have an obvious reddish hue to their chelae or front claws. The Red Claws are also usually more aggressive and slightly smaller than the P. imperator.
P. imperator is chiefly located in Western Africa, and has also been found in the countries of Gabon, Senegal, and Togo, and other countries near the equator. In these countries they are found in the humid rainforests, living in tunnels near the surface of the leaf litter. According to one source, they can also be found near stream banks[ii]. The same source also claims that if prey is plentiful enough, they can be found in large colonies. One study by D. Mahsberg says that one colony was discovered containing 15 separate individuals[iii].
Selecting a Healthy Scorpion
When shopping for a new pet scorpion, it can be difficult to decide which are healthy and which are not. To tell the truth, I do not know of anyone who can accurately select a healthy scorpion simply by sight alone. As stated earlier, most if not all scorpions found within the trade, unless specifically labeled, are probably wild-caught, and will have some type of internal parasites. Currently there are no medical or practical ways available to rid the scorpions of these parasites.
Stress is a common term used when dealing with pets of all sorts within the pet industry. We must understand however, that scorpions are an ancient animal traditionally living with and thriving under stressful conditions. Stress, as defined by humans, is an emotional state of mind which involves nervous system signals and different brain chemistry. For the scorpion; however, most scientists say there is no emotion involved. If these claims are accurate, the scorpion is reacting to instinctual survival skills it’s developed over the millennia, allowing them to populate the globe.
When looking to purchase a scorpion in any retail shop, I will ask the salespeople some general questions. My inquiries begin with surface subject matter, such as the scorpion’s feeding habits. If the scorpion happens to be in a communal enclosure, as I have seen in many of the local pet shops, I will usually ask for one or two of them to be removed from the enclosure and housed or placed in a different enclosure so I can examine it more closely. I will typically look for one that is alert and readily assumes a defensive posture when disturbed. Sometimes, when I have doubts if the particular scorpion that I am looking at is alert, I will ask the salesperson to feed it or gently prod it and then I’ll monitor the reaction.
I will then compare it to the others in the enclosure it was removed from. Does it appear to have the same weight? Does it react sluggishly? Etc. It is usually a safe bet that if the scorpion reacts quickly to being disturbed and has what appears to be the same weight as its peers, then you can be relatively sure that you are looking at a healthy scorpion.
Now that you have purchased your new pet, it’s time to consider where you’re going to put it. This may very well be one of the most important decisions you will make to ensure the well-being of the scorpion. I mentioned previously that the body and pedipalps are covered in sensory hairs. Believe it or not, these fine hairs can detect vibrations in the air itself! As you you’ve probably already deduced, placing your new pet in an area where you and your friends regularly hold band practice would not be a prime piece of real estate.
Personally, I have my scorpions placed in a low foot traffic area where the music and any other such loud “noise” would not be a disturbance to them. That being said, I would highly recommend that you house any scorpions separately from each other and not let them come together except for breeding, which will be covered later. I am of the opinion that a single adult Pandinus imperator can be housed in a “10-gallon breeder” tank, which measures 20 ¼” x 10 ½” x 12 9/16”. This enclosure can house an adult P. imperator and all the accessories that you may need in order to keep it in a healthful state. Zilla makes a great tank for Scorpion keeping Zilla 28010 10-Gallon Critter Cage, 20-Inch by 10-Inch by 12-Inch.
When keeping any arachnid, the choices for substrates are as varied as the opinions of those who own them. A number of keepers recommend a peat and vermiculite mix. Others recommend a mixture of sand and peat. There are still others who maintain that potting soil works just fine. There are a number of substrates commercially available, making the deliberation process of mixtures a moot point. I mention a few here just for the sake of completeness.
Forest Floor Bedding and Eco Earth, both by Zoo Med, are humidity-holding substrates that work well for P. imperator. In my observations, the Eco Earth® tends to compact over time and dry out relatively quickly. I’ve concluded that this phenomenon may be exacerbated by the fact that I live in a very dry climate. The Forest Floor Bedding tends to hold moisture well enough, but with its large pieces of shredded wood, it’s not aesthetically pleasing.
Jungle Bed, Cypress Bed, and Forest Bed by T-Rex® are all great products, which I have used in several, if not all of my enclosures. If you want to do a planted vivarium with your P. imperator, then I would recommend going with the Jungle Bed. The Cypress Bed will also work, but again, it is a little too chunky in appearance for my tastes. Forest Bed does not seem to compact as quickly as the Eco Earth® and it seems to retain it’s its moisture better, even in the drier climates.
As for my personal collection of Emperor Scorpions P. imperator, I use nothing more than groundcover bark, which can be purchased at most home improvement stores. This substrate not only costs less than the ones mentioned above, but it also retains moisture, is easily spot-cleaned, and can dry out quickly if needed. While the concept of “drying out quicker” may seem an oxymoron, let me explain.
There are times when with the best of intentions, we tend to overdo the basics of care. Trying to increase and decrease humidity in some climates can be somewhat of a chore. There is either too much heat or not enough moisture, or too much moisture and not enough heat to create the needed humidity. I have found in my particular climate, the groundcover bark works extremely well at maintaining a nice balance between the heat and humidity.
P. imperator is a burrowing species, known to dig their own burrows if given the proper substrate. I have never attempted the method recommended by some keepers, of starting a burrow for them by digging down into the substrate. On their behalf, apparently, if you begin a burrow for them in a substrate of mixed peat and sand, the hide will hold its shape and not collapse when the scorpion adds its “finishing touches” to the tunnel. As I stated previously, I keep my collection of P. imperator on groundcover bark. The only negative side effect of this material is that it simply will not readily hold a burrow unless it was mixed with some other type of substrate.
In order to provide them with a burrow, you can do one of two things. You can buy a reptile hide of the appropriate size and place it in the bottom of the enclosure. By establishing the entrance slightly angled towards the surface, the scorpion can enter it easily. The other option, which is much more cost-effective, is the one I use.
Use an old toilet paper tube and strip any remaining pieces of paper, then place it in the corner of the enclosure with about a ½” of substrate beneath it. Finally, bury the entire tube with only the entrance exposed. The scorpion will quickly discover this new hide, immediately enter it, and make use of it. As with any paper-based product, moisture will eventually break it down. For this reason, I usually keep an extra few on hand. Paper towel rolls can also be used after they are cut and fashioned to the appropriate size.
When it comes to decorating any vivarium, I will always strive to make it look and feel as natural for the creature as possible. While I’m interested in making it as aesthetically pleasing as possible, the basic living requirements of the scorpion need to be the priority. With the Emperor Scorpion P. imperator, selecting decor can be somewhat troublesome. If you choose to make a natural vivarium for your new pet, or if you’re considering upgrading your old vivarium to a new and improved design, the following should help.
The enclosure should be a regular 10-gallon fish tank with a screen lid, which can be clipped in place. Now it comes time to make choices regarding hydration. You never want to have standing water on any substrate for more than a day. This could cause a fungal or mold bloom within the enclosure, which might harm your pet. In order to counteract this, I recommend using a layer of pea gravel, Hydro stones by Zoo Med, or aquarium gravel at about 1” in depth. Next add a layer of 2 ½ -3” of Jungle Bed by T-Rex®. With the Jungle Bed in place, you are now ready to plant live plants of your choice. There is nothing that I can find that documents that specific plants will cause harm to scorpions, but to be on the safe side of things, I use reptile-safe vivarium plants. These can be Pothos, and various other tropical type plants such as ferns, etc. Some of my clients have chosen to avoid maintenance issues associated with live plants and instead use plastic in the same set-up as described above.
If you are going to do a natural set-up, then one of the most important is a full-spectrum fluorescent bulb set for a normal 12 hr cycle, which will provide the needed light for the plants to stay healthy. Since Emperor Scorpions P. imperator are a nocturnal species without bones, they do not require a source of UVB. To add some interesting effects to the enclosure and your pet itself, I highly recommend acquiring a black light. This actually causes any Scorpion to fluoresce an eerie bluish-green color. As far as I have discovered, usage of the black light has no observable negative effects on the plants themselves. I have yet to discover any documentation that addresses the scorpion’s inherent capacity to fluoresce. More importantly, little discourse is given regarding why they developed this capability or what purpose it would serve.
Most keepers recommend a temperature somewhere between 78-82˚ F. Depending on how warm you keep the room where your Emperor Scorpion(s) P. imperator is to be kept, you may be able to get away without using a heater at all. For the rest of us, an under-tank heater (UTH) will suffice, because it only raises the temperature by about 10˚ F, but should never be used without a thermostat. You must be careful and very observant that you remember to unplug this UTH during the summer months. Otherwise, you will cause undue stress and even worse, possibly “cook” your pet. A UTH, in my opinion, should never be used with plastic terraria, as it may melt the artificial terrain. While I’ve yet to hear any first-hand reports of this phenomenon, there are documented incidents that have appeared in various magazines and blogs on the internet.
Emperor Scorpions in the wild eat a varied diet of arthropods, other insects and even other scorpions. In captivity, I would recommend a diet composed of crickets, with the occasional mealworm or roach thrown in just to add variety on occasion. I feed my scorpions once a week, usually three or four crickets at a time. Now, I am sure everyone has heard of P. imperator eating pinkies or has seen a web broadcast video of such feats. While this might seem a viable choice to some readers, it should be noted that this is not a recommended food source for the Emperor Scorpion.
In my experience, daily maintenance is not required. That being said, I personally perform and recommend a weekly regiment of spot cleaning. Additionally, a more intense cleaning should occur monthly, or at the very least, bi-monthly. This includes completely emptying the contents of the enclosure and disinfecting it with a mild bleach solution.
There are those of the opinion that a constant supply of fresh water must always be available to the Emperor Scorpion P. imperator. Other sources tell us that leaving a shallow dish with pea gravel in it to prevent drowning offered once a week is more than sufficient to quench the occasional thirst of our pets. As for myself, I once again try to make the environment as natural as possible. This means building depressions in the substrate that I am using and misting the enclosure either daily or every few days to allow the scorpion to drink as it would in the wild. Meaning, ingesting fluids from the ground or the droplets that catch on its tiny hairs that cover the body.
As you become more comfortable with the Emperor Scorpion, you may find that your confidence leads you to start thinking of breeding these interesting arthropods so that future generations may enjoy them. This is a great thought and one I encourage any scorpion owner to consider. We can never tell when the CITES committee will decide that the endemic populations are so threatened, that they close the proverbial door to any export of Emperor Scorpion. A really great book is the Scorpions (Complete Pet Owner’s Manual)
As with any attempt at breeding animals, the very first thing that should be done is to ensure that you have a viable pair. This means we need to get up close and personal with our scorpions. Normally I address this awkwardness with humor. A few knock-knock jokes grease the situation to my advantage, granting me access to viewing the full range of their “equipment.” The best way to sex any scorpion is to look at adults. Typically speaking, males will have longer pectines, which can occasionally be slightly curved. These pectine will also have more “teeth” than females of the same species. This classification process can be even further facilitated if you are able to examine several scorpions at the time of purchase, providing that they are all relatively the same size.
Another clue as to the sex of the scorpion is that of size. Males are smaller than the female counterpart of their species. Another clue as to the gender can also be found on the pincers or chelae. The granularity or bumps on the chelae themselves are more in number on the males of P. ssp than they are on the females.
It has not been proven beyond a reasonable doubt that scorpions, much like snakes and lizards, must undergo a winter cooling period. However, it would appear that the success rate is much higher when they are cooled for a couple of months during the winter season. It is also a generally accepted practice to allow the scorpions to fast during these cooling periods. When cooling scorpions, it does not seem necessary to gradually drop the temperature as you would with reptile species. With mine, I simply follow the normal cycle of the seasons, meaning that during the winter my home is generally cooler than it is during the summer and spring. It is at this time that I cease feeding and spraying, allowing the temperature to drop about 10 to 15˚F. The photoperiod or lighting is also adjusted to simulate the seasonal change.
Under normal circumstances, I will not try to cool my scorpions until January or February. This is because I wait until the advent of spring to prompt me to reintegrate heating and spraying them again on a regular basis. In the months prior and during the cooling months, the enclosure is not cleaned at all, and a flat rock or piece of bark is placed into the females’ enclosure. Then both the male and female enclosures are placed into a dark closet where they will remain undisturbed.
I strongly suggest placing a shallow dish of water within the enclosure to avoid dehydration during the cooling periods. The only thing I do during this near-hibernation process is open the closet and check to make sure that there is water available. Even then, I’m doing this with great care and only once a month. Any “major” disturbance at this time may be detrimental to the health of scorpion.
Spring Wake Up
At the advent of spring, I will bring the enclosures out and begin heating again to normal temperatures for a few days before I offer food. When food is eventually offered, the males will sometimes not feed and appear to be constantly agitated. However, their female counterparts have a much different perspective. Instead, the females will be gluttonous in their feeding. This is all considered to be normal behavior and should be no cause for alarm. Feed the scorpions as much as they will eat for the next month or so. During the second week of the spring wake-up process, begin spraying the enclosures as you would normally during the year. This can be likened to a simulation of the spring rains that would accompany higher prey availability.
Bringing the happy couple together
This is the part where keepers really have to be careful. As we already know, scorpions have no issues about eating their own. So what is a scorpion keeper to do? There are a couple of measures we as humans can do to prevent our unfortunate male scorpions from becoming just another meal for our females. I wish I had been granted similar advice with my first wife!
First, an adult Emperor Scorpion should not be bred until the arachnid is about four years in age. Most breeders believe that they reach full maturity at this age. Although there have been reported cases of them breeding much earlier, I believe the stress of doing this would be detrimental to the long-term health of your pets.
The male should always be placed within the females’ enclosure. While this is not a documented and proven method, it’s one that has been successful for me in my experiences. This works because the female lays sexual pheromones throughout her enclosure as she wanders around. Males encounter these chemical cues in the wild when they crossed a females’ burrow. These chemical cues excite the male so much that he begins vibrating his body and the female sensing these vibrations, charges the male in a mock combat situation. While this may seem alarming at first, you should not interfere. Allow them to lock pedipalps and stand back and watch. This may be a good moment to obtain some tasty popcorn. The male will typically search for a suitable place to drop or place his spermatophore and then drag the female over it.
When this is done, she will pick up the sperm with her own pectine, forcing it within her operculum. During this process, the male may sting the female. This is apparently to save his own life as it only anesthetizes the female long enough for him to lay the spermatophore and pull her over it. After she inseminates herself, they will unlock and the male will attempt to beat a hasty retreat. Here’s where the popcorn munching becomes more frantic, because now is the time when the female will typically attempt to kill the male. Should you be so lucky or patient enough, as soon as they unlock the pedipalps, you may want to take mercy on your male scorpion and judiciously remove the male from the potential melee.
Gestation & Birth
After a mating, the female should be fed regularly, as she may absorb the embryos if she is not. During the gestation, there will be little if any noticeable change in the female until the last month of the gestation, when the female’s body will increase in size. At this point, it may be possible to see tiny babies within her through the skin between the plates of her chitin shell. Now you should heat the enclosure’s basking area to at a constant temperature of least 82˚ F. Gestation will last anywhere from seven and nine months. Normal birthings of anywhere between 10 to 32 young have been recorded. The larger birth number is probably attributed to the more mature females. It’s also worth mentioning that scorpions do not lay eggs and that they indeed give live birth. The female usually does not eat for a week or so and becomes very reclusive, usually refusing to exit the hide.
Then, after the babies are born, she will appear from the hide and should be fed as much as she will eat. This is done for two reasons. Not only will she be weak from the birth process but she will also cannibalize the babies if she is not fed properly. When the babies are born, they immediately climb onto the mothers back and ride around with her for about a week until their first molt also known as the first “instar”. Instars are the number of molts for any arachnid until they reach sexual maturity. You should also be careful to remove any uneaten live crickets from the enclosure, since they can act as predator on the baby scorpions. If this does need to be done, you must be very wary of the female who may take your movement as signs of a hostile invasion, and attempt to attack in order to defend her offspring.
Raising the Little Folk
I usually keep Emperor Scorpions with a basking spot of 90˚ F and 100% humidity within the entire enclosure, as they are highly susceptible to desiccation. Other than those two specifics, there is really nothing out of the ordinary for keeping the little guys growing. Obviously, they will not take as large a prey as their adult parents so I feed them small crickets and or mealworms. Most will not survive to adulthood no matter what amount care is given. This doesn’t mean you should give any less amount of care; I only mention this so it will not be a shock when it does happen. I also recommend keeping a very shallow dish of water with a sponge in it to prevent drowning of the babies.
Emperor Scorpions as Ambassadors
Pandinus imperator could possibly be the number one ambassador into the world of keeping arachnid pets. They are easily cared for by both the novice and advanced keeper. Their lack of aggression also appeals to most of those who have never kept a scorpion species as a pet. Although they are not as readily available in the numbers they once were, they are still found relatively easily and should be viewed as truly unique pets that will bring many years of enjoyment to the conscientious keeper who is willing to take on an interesting and unusual species.
[i]Rubio Manny, Scorpions A Complete Owners Manual Barron’s Educational Series 2000
[ii] Rubio Manny, Scorpions A Complete Owners Manual Barron’s Educational Series 2000
[iii] Mahsberg, D. (1990) Brood care and family cohesion in the tropical scorpion.