A scream comes from inside the Olivier Lower residence hall at SCAD-Lacoste. Five students crowd around a stone wall and stare. The less brave ones are out the door in seconds.
The intruder, no more than three inches in length, remains motionless on the wall.
There are around 300 species of scorpions in the world that secrete a deadly neurotoxin through their stinger. The one on the wall is part of the other 1,200 varieties. And although these students have been told that if stung by this type of scorpion it will feel, at worse, like a bee sting, everyone keeps a minimum five-foot radius.
“When I think of France I don’t think of scorpions,” said Malee Moua, a fourth-year writing student. She was the one who screamed when she spotted a black scorpion on the wall next to her bed.
The Provençal region of France has at least three different varieties of scorpions. According to Max Goyffon, a scorpion specialist at the Museum of Natural History in Paris, the most common kind of scorpion in southern France is Euscorpius flavicaudis. It is black with yellow legs and stinger.
The one they saw was Euscorpius carpathicus, a smaller variety of scorpion, black with brownish red legs. They live at higher elevations.
“These two species are completely harmless,” said Goyffon via email.
The third type of scorpion in the region, Buthus occitanu is a small yellow relative of deadly scorpions in Africa. But although its sting is painful, it is not dangerous in France.
“It is not easily found nor observed,” said Goyffon who considers it to be a threatened species.
Jean Pierre Soalhat, a preservationist who works closely with SCAD-Lacoste, was born in the nearby village of Caseneuve. His nickname growing up was The Scorpion.
“They called me that because I used to catch scorpions and sell them to other kids at school,” said Soalhat who confirmed through trial and error that they are harmless.
Like Soalhat, some students in Lacoste are attracted to these little arachnids. Eleanor Twiford, the academic director here, remembers two students in spring of 2010 who kept one as a pet and named it Croissant. This quarter fourth-year photography student Taylor James, a former exotic pet breeder, attempted to catch a small scorpion and keep it as a pet.
“I scooped him gently into a cup and put him on top of my dresser. And then he died and I felt bad,” said James. He said next time he will just place the scorpion outside.
Even though they are prevalent in this region, coming to Lacoste doesn’t guarantee an encounter with these shy creatures. The scorpions hibernate in small crevasses all winter. Chances of seeing them indoors increases during the summer mating season and in early fall when they take refuge from heavy rains.
This quarter scorpions frequented the window next to fourth-year illustration student Serena Dominguez’s bed. She has spotted three so far and saw an opportunity to create art.
“I wanted to suffocate one somehow and keep it to put it in resin,” she said, but was unable to. Dominguez said she is unperturbed by their presence. “I’d rather see a scorpion than a cockroach.”
The five students huddled around the intruding arachnid apparently do not agree. This was the fifth scorpion that they had found in their residence. Moua had already seen two in the bathroom, one on her roommate’s jacket, another in the hall and now this one a foot away from her bed.
After some debate, one of her roommates, fourth-year photography student, who identifies herself as irrationally afraid of insects, attempted to kill it with the bottom of a bottle of house cleaner. It fell into a strategically placed trashcan. She then ran the trash bag to the dumpster in the rain.
The Marseille Anti-Poison Center would probably find this elaborate disposal of a scorpion unnecessary. Since opening in the 1967 they have never registered a death from a scorpion sting — a fact that Twiford, likes to tell squeamish students who encounter scorpions in Lacoste.
“You need to respect them, but you don’t need to be afraid,” said Twiford.Contact Anna Geannopoulos.