Terminal Rage

10 Mar

Copyright © Oliver Nichols

Most animals will not survive sub-zero temperatures. Freezing causes ice crystals to form which expand to rupture the organism’s cell walls, resulting in imminent death. Some creatures have adapted to survive freezing conditions by migrating, hiding and hibernating, or fighting frost to some degree.

But for scientists studying immortality, the holy grail of their discipline is to find a creature which has evolved genetically to completely avoid crystallization of its liquid content under sub-zero conditions, while decelerating its life systems to a near-death point where little or no energy is required for survival. Then, when thawed, it would still be able to resume life with no impact on its remaining life-span. The evolutionary science behind such a trait would unlock a treasure trove of secrets that would have bearing on our own longevity as a species.

By the early 1900s however, the search for this mythical creature had all but stopped. Scientists had lost hope in ever finding it. That is until the late 1930s when a chance discovery revived that obsession.

In 1937, and during the final decades of the British occupation of Egypt, a group of scientists from University College London took back various exotic species of Egyptian animals to classify and study. Including two rare ruby-red scorpions captured in the desert outside the Siwa Oasi. Although the UCL researchers did no know it at the time, they were in possession of a previously unclassified sub-variety of the more common and extremely lethal Androctonus australis scorpion. Unlike most other animals that live in deserts, Androctonus does not dig burrows and can withstand sandstorms powerful enough to strip paint off steel, without any ostensible damage to its odd exoskeleton surface. Its armor is covered with dome-shaped granules which when cloned into other materials, protects them to a certain degree as well.

When the UCL mission returned to London, one of the two scorpions had died in transit. Because there were no arachnologists on the team, the other scorpion was eventually deemed of little interest and was to be terminated. Instead of discarding it, a young research assistant decided to freeze it to for a more compassionate death, and must have forgotten to remove it from the freezer.

Three years later, the frozen scorpion was discovered by an undergraduate arachnologist. Certain that it was dead, he thawed it and then held it, but was bitten by the scorpion with lethal effect. The Androctonus escaped, and the young student died in fifteen minutes, before which he was able to inform his colleagues what had happened to him.

Intrigued by the implication of a scorpion that can survive under sub-zero conditions for three years, a small expedition from UCL was dispatched back to Egypt to try to retrieve more samples of the scorpion. They wanted to understand why a scorpion that lived in a temperate, desert climate had developed the ability to remain alive while frozen. And more importantly, why its primary instinct upon coming back to life was to attack and kill. Was it a primitive form of revenge, hard coded within the scorpion and activated upon revival?

The UCL scientists failed to retrieve any more specimens of the rare ruby-red scorpion. As if it had never existed. They returned to London empty-handed.

But the local Siwi people knew better. The ruby-red scorpion had terrorized them for centuries and they feared it more than death it self. Each year it claimed at least two lives. Death from its venom is miserably painful. Which would explain why they called it al ghadab al qatel. Terminal Rage.



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