Amazing creatures that have hardly changed in 350 million years are still among us – a slightly scary thought.
“Absolutely safe,“ I told my children as we walked through the forest. I made it sound particularly sincere and smiled. The terrain was steep, the ferns were tall, and a waterfall thundered down from a great height into a wide basin, where it became a gently flowing stream. We saw strangely gnarled trees that looked like peculiar creatures. Branches whipped against our faces. A foot sank squelching into the swampy ground. I said, “We’re a good 60 million years too late for any dinosaurs.” – “Quite sure?” – “Absolutely sure!” But even after we discovered a suitable place to light a fire and soon had sausages sizzling over the embers on skewers, the children kept glancing over their shoulders.
They were slightly worried that perhaps dinosaurs might still be alive after all, right here in the forest, in a valley called Misox in southern Switzerland. The night before, we had sat in front of a crackling fire, looking at a hefty book full of pictures of prehistoric critters, many of them engaged in bloody battles. This had fired the children’s imagination. Most people know as little about the Misox Valley as they do about prehistoric times. Hardly anyone stops here, although many people heading south do drive through it on the A13 freeway, as an alternative to the eternally congested Gotthard route. There is little here to attract tourists. It has a miniature golf course near the tunnel portal in San Bernardino, cool cave bars called grottis in the southern part of the valley, and nature running riot, most of it impenetrable. A few archaeopteryxes on the wing, a pack of bloodthirsty velociraptors or a T. rex thundering through the thickets would not have been out of place in this primeval landscape.
But the fact that I was mistaken, completely and utterly mistaken, when I so convincingly asserted that there were no prehistoric animals living there, was something I would discover the following morning – personally and almost painfully.
My morning routine does not generally involve shaking out my shoes before I put them on. I have no idea why I did it that morning. Maybe because everything appears different in an alien environment, even our own shoes? And, yes, I got a shock when something fell out of the shoe. It moved. It was an animal, one I had not expected to see. There it sat on the floor, a gleaming black creature with stinger and pincers raised in defiance, as if it had a good mind to start a fight: a scorpion.
With the help of the children and a jam jar, the critter was soon caught. We studied it under a magnifying glass. It was horrific. Thanks to the Internet, the children had soon learned a lot more. For instance, that scorpions are actually living fossils and that their development was largely already complete 350 million years ago, and for a good reason: Nature has made such a perfect job of designing the scorpion that there was simply no need to improve it over the past 350 million years. Compared with the life cycle of an iPhone generation, 350 years is a very long time.
We soon took the scorpion outside to a place we thought might make it a good home. It quickly crawled into a dark crack in the wall. When our vacation was over, we packed our things, cleaned the house, left the mountains, drove home and resumed our scorpion-free city life with the knowledge we have gained: that there are still some truly ancient things around, and also that they deserve our highest respect, especially if they come in the terrifying form of a scorpion. Since then, I look inside my shoes every morning before slipping them on – just to be on the safe side.
P.S.: The book I mentioned is Paleoart: Visions of the Prehistoric Past, by Zoe Lescaze, Taschen 2017.