Snake Bites and Scorpion Stings

By Spc. Anna-Marie Hizer, 133rd Mobile Public Affairs Detachment

KIRKUK, Iraq – Being aware of one’s surroundings is a skill Soldiers constantly maintain and seek to improve. However, one potential hazard for troops in Northern Iraq may be easily missed. And it is right under their feet.

Temperatures in Iraq are rising steadily, and with the heat come more wildlife sharing land – and living space – with their human counterparts. One type of critter that Iraq has no shortage of is reptiles. Many Soldiers have probably seen the small yellow lizards climbing walls or scurrying along walkways. These harmless dune geckos are a common sight throughout much of the Middle East – but not all desert-dwelling reptiles are so benign.

kurdistan viper picture
Kurdistan Viper produces hemotoxic venom which destroys blood cells, causes tissue damage and can cause internal hemorrhaging in bite victims

Kurdistan Viper

One critter that has been found on Forward Operating Base Warrior is the Kurdistan Viper. This snake produces hemotoxic venom which destroys blood cells, causes tissue damage and can cause internal hemorrhaging in bite victims. In addition, Saw-Scaled Vipers, another serpent found across Iraq, have been spotted on the FOB. These vipers are considered the most toxic of the group and present the greatest potential for severe tissue damage and hemorrhage.

Of course, as with most snakes, they will try to escape human contact without having to use their venom – which not only kills prey, but also aids in digestion. But in some circumstances, when the animal feels cornered or threatened, it will strike.

“Prevention is the best cure,” said Army Maj. Ken Brooks, physician’s assistant, Special Troops Battalion, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division. “Use common sense; don’t put your hands in places that could house a snake.”

In addition, Brooks said one surefire way to attract snakes to living quarters is having food lying around.

“Food attracts [rodents],” he said, “vermin attract snakes.”

If snakes are not enough, Iraq also boasts a collection of deadly scorpions.

death stalker scorpion
Death Stalker Scorpion, perhaps the most toxic type of scorpion sting on earth

Death Stalker Scorpion

Death Stalker Scorpions, perhaps the most toxic type of scorpions on earth, along with Fat-Tailed Scorpions, roam the Iraqi desert, usually preying on insects and small lizards.

However, these invertebrates occasionally show up in human habitats.

“You leave your boots on the ground, your clothing on the ground [they want to get where it’s cool],” said Air Force Maj. Armando Rosales, Public Health Officer, 506th Expeditionary Medical Squadron. “Make sure you shake everything out and check … and watch where you’re stepping.”

In addition to snakes and scorpions, the Middle East is home to another bug – one that is infamous among service members and is also highly misunderstood.

camel spider picture
Camel Spiders are not dangerous to humans and pose no threat to camels, either.

Camel Spiders

Camel Spiders have spawned many rumors within the military over decades of service in the Middle East. However, the majority of these stories are untrue. Camel Spiders, which are not actually spiders at all, belong to the family Solifugae. They are not dangerous to humans and pose no threat to camels, either. Their bite can be painful, due to the animal’s large chelicerae, which are used to crush and chew smaller arthropods such as spiders and scorpions, but they have no ‘paralytic venom,’ as some rumors suggest.

Both Rosales and Brooks agree that the chance of being bitten or stung is slim; however, service members should be aware of where they are walking and where they place their hands.

Additionally, Brooks noted personnel should walk to showers and latrines in full shoes – not flip-flops or sandals.

Another risk some people take is actively playing with dangerous animals. Making scorpions fight or trying to make a viper the company mascot is not only against regulations, but could also lead to serious injury.

Not all Iraq’s reptiles are venomous. But to play it safe, Rosales said people should leave any ectothermic or arthropod critters alone. If an individual does happen to find the wrong end of a scorpion or snake, the first thing to remember is to remain calm. Panicking increases heart rate, which speeds up the circulation of venom through the system.

Next you should try and ice the site and bandage it. But, as Rosario warns, do not attempt to treat the bite yourself.

“You definitely don’t want to do any home remedies Like cutting the wound open and sucking out the venom,” he said. “” A home remedy can do more harm than good, by envenomating both individuals.

He also said the victim or a buddy should try to identify the animal or bug. This way, medical personnel can have a better idea of how to treat the bite, and what, if any, antivenin is needed.

So while scorpions, snakes and camel spiders or other spiders do not pose the daily threat troops are used to in the desert, everyone should be aware of what is out there, especially things that could lurk in an overturned boot.

Please send us your stories about Camel Spiders.

Here is a good Camel Spider resource.