Venomous yellow scorpions are moving into Brazil’s big cities – and the infestation may be unstoppable

scorpions brazil Scorpions used to be a rural problem in Brazil. Not anymore.

I live in São Paulo, the biggest city in Brazil, home to some 12 million people – 20 million if you count the outskirts, which have been sprawling for three decades.

That makes the city an ideal place to observe the phenomena I research: complex social problems. In academia, this concept refers to problems such as corruption, crime, and drug trafficking—problems which, in practice, cannot be solved. They must simply be mitigated or managed.

São Paulo is a dense city, with not much green space and little to no animal life. Urban São Paulo has no squirrels or raccoons, there aren’t even that many birds. So I was astonished to learn, in January, that scorpions had infested my neighborhood.

</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">As it turned out, people across the city and São Paulo state were having the same problem with these dangerous, venomous bugs. State-wide, scorpion stings have increased threefold over the </span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">last two decades</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;">.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Four kinds of scorpion live in Brazil, but historically they are only found in rural areas. São Paulo residents are urbanites. We have conquered nature. Or so we thought.</span></p> <p><img loading="lazy" class="size-full wp-image-14009 aligncenter" src="ão-paulo-brazil-city-center.jpg" alt="são paulo brazil city center" width="754" height="503" srcset="ão-paulo-brazil-city-center.jpg 754w,ão-paulo-brazil-city-center-300x200.jpg 300w,ão-paulo-brazil-city-center-610x407.jpg 610w" sizes="(max-width: 754px) 100vw, 754px" /></p> <h2>Brazil’s urban scorpions</h2> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Brazil’s scorpion infestation is the perfect example of how unpredictable </span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">modern life has become</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;">. It is a hallmark of what those of us in the complex problems field call a “VUCA” world—one that is Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Some 2.5 billion people worldwide, from Mexico to Russia, live in areas with scorpions, which generally prefer hot and dry ecosystems.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">But Brazil’s cities also provide excellent habitats for scorpions, experts say. They offer shelter in sewage networks, plenty of water, waste food that goes unclaimed, and crucially, no natural predators.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Scorpions, like the cockroaches they feast on, are an incredibly adaptable species. As the weather in Brazil gets hotter due to climate change, scorpions are spreading across the country, including to its colder southern states that rarely, if ever, have had reports of scorpions prior to this millennium.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">The number of people stung by scorpions across Brazil has risen from 12,000 in 2000 to 140,000 last year, according to the health ministry.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Most scorpion stings are extremely painful but not fatal. For children, however, they are more dangerous and require urgent medical attention. Eighty-eight people died from scorpion sting wounds in 2017, Brazil’s </span><i><span style="font-weight: 400;">O Globo</span></i><span style="font-weight: 400;"> newspaper </span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">reports</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;">, highlighting the lack of adequate medical care available in small towns. Many of those dead were children.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">In Americana, a city of about 200,000 inhabitants in the interior of São Paulo state, teams performing nocturnal searches for scorpions captured more than 13,000 last year – that’s the equivalent of one scorpion for every 15 people.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Worse yet, the species terrorizing Brazilians is the highly poisonous yellow scorpion, or </span><i><span style="font-weight: 400;">Tityus serrulatus</span></i><span style="font-weight: 400;">. It reproduces through the miracle of parthenogenesis, meaning a female scorpion simply generates copies of herself twice a year, with no male participation required.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Each parthenogenesis can spawn up to 20 to 30 baby scorpions. Though most will die in their first days and weeks of life, ridding Brazilian cities of scorpions would be a herculean, if not downright impossible, task.</span></p> <p><img loading="lazy" class="size-full wp-image-14008 aligncenter" src="" alt="yellow scorpions brazil infestation" width="754" height="503" srcset=" 754w, 300w, 610w" sizes="(max-width: 754px) 100vw, 754px" /></p> <h2>Wicked problems in a crazy world</h2> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Brazil’s urban scorpion infestation is a classic “</span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">wicked problem</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;">.”</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">This term, first used in 1973 by design theorists Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber, refers to enormous social or cultural problems such as poverty and war—problems with no simple or definitive solution, and which arise at the intersection of other issues.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Wicked problems are a symptom of numerous other related issues, both natural and human-made. In this case, Brazil’s urban scorpion infestation is the result of poor garbage management, inadequate sanitation, rapid urbanization, and a changing climate.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">It is likely too late to stop the spread of scorpions across Brazilian cities.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">In a VUCA world, my academic research and other problem-solving studies show, wicked problems should be identified and confronted as soon as possible, using an array of responses.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Likewise, in a VUCA world, the more resources you throw at problems, the better. That could mean anything from public awareness campaigns to educate Brazilians about scorpions, to extermination task forces working to control populations in urban areas. Scientists should be involved. Brazil’s national public health system will need to adapt to this new threat.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Brazil’s government appears to be ill-equipped to tackle the scorpion infestation.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Despite </span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">dogged press coverage</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;">, federal health officials have barely spoken publicly about Brazil’s urban scorpion problem. And, beyond some rather tepid national and state-level efforts to train health officials in scorpion risks, authorities seem to have no plan for fighting the infestation at the epidemic level it is heading towards.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Nor are cities likely to see any federal money dedicated to fighting this scorpion infestation: Brazil is only now coming out of a deep recession, and public health budgets have been slashed.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Venomous yellow scorpions, I fear, have already claimed their place alongside violent crime, brutal drug trafficking and other chronic problems that urbanites in Brazil must cope with daily.</span></p> <hr /> <p><img loading="lazy" class="size-medium wp-image-398 alignleft" src="" sizes="(max-width: 300px) 100vw, 300px" srcset=" 300w, 768w, 1024w" alt="the conversation brazil article" width="300" height="24" /></p> <h6 style="text-align: right;">Originally published on<br /> <a href=""><strong>The Conversation</strong></a></h6> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">

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Hamilton Coimbra Carvalho

Researcher in Complex Social Problems, Universidade de São Paulo. He is a research associate, Grupo de pesquisas em dinâmica de sistemas - USP.

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