Two Young Researchers Describe Two New Scorpions

Just another day at Playa. The sun burns relentlessly. The baked earth radiates heat from below. And a scorpion rests, hidden in one of the cracks in the salty, loamy soil. Its caramel-colored, waxy exoskeleton covered in fine sensory hairs protects it from drying out, and its pectins — the comb-like chemosensory organs on its abdomen — taste the soil beneath.

Unbeknownst to this eight-legged arachnid, it has just been given a new name: Paruroctonus conclusus. its specific epithet, Conclusion, is Latin for “restricted” and reflects how extremely small the strip of land near Koehn Lake in Kern County it appears to inhabit. As far as we know, the entire species lives in less than a square kilometer.

In August 2022, this species and another Mojave Desert relative became of the same genus P Soda, were named and formally described in a research paper in Zookeys authored by two young naturalists, Prakrit Jain, 18, and Harper Forbes, 19, along with Lauren Esposito, curator of arachnology at the California Academy of Science.

Left to right: Prakrit Jain, Harper Forbes and Lauren Esposito. (Photo by Gayle Laird/California Academy of Sciences)

“I didn’t think finding a new species was a very achievable goal,” Forbes said. “I thought it was something that would come much later in life — sort of out of my league.”

Your paper was years in the making.

It all started in 2011 when Cal Academy arachnologist Sarah Crews observed a mysterious scorpion near Koehn Lake. The crews uploaded the image of this scorpion to iNaturalist, a website where people share observations and collectively identify species, in 2013. It sat there for years, collecting line by line suggested identifications from other iNaturalist users. With each passing year, the “activity” section for this observation resembled more of an after-a-shopping shopping list, with each suggested species crossed out.

When Crews uploaded the observation in 2013, Jain and Forbes were both around 10 years old. But they were already well on their way to becoming veteran California naturalists.

Jain grew up attending Bioblitzes, events dedicated to species identification and research, and it was at a Bioblitz on Mount Diablo that Jain met his first scorpion, a western wood scorpion – incidentally found by iNaturalist co-founder Kenichi Ueda. Forbes met his first scorpion at the Death Valley Visitor Center, and both have continued to cultivate their interest in the world’s crawlies since those encounters (see Harper’s and Prakrit’s Instagrams for crawly highlights).

Jain met Esposito in a bioblitz when he was about 11 years old, and in 2018 Jain and Forbes first met as volunteers at McClellan Ranch Preserve in Cupertino. They lived only five minutes apart and spent hours photographing the Forbes collection of live scorpions.

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“We met through scorpions, but we were also interested in all kinds of animals,” Forbes said. “We’ve gotten more and more involved with scorpions over time.”

At this time, Forbes and Jain are iNaturalist power users who have each provided over 20,000 identifications on the platform. While surveying the site in 2019, they came across Crew’s as yet unidentified 2011 scorpion observation from Koehn Lake. Spotting something unusual, the pair, along with Esposito, began collecting and eventually describing this first new species. In 2021, they added a second, P.Sodaafter finding another unidentified scorpion sighting on the platform.

“These students had the drive, but more importantly, they had this curiosity,” said Zia Nisani, a biology professor at Antelope Valley College and a scorpion behavior specialist who studies another scorpion in the United States Paruroctonus Genus. “I’ll bet you they’re not the only two people who’ve looked at these two [iNaturalist observations]but they were the first to take it to the next level, which led to the publication of new species identifications.”

For the young researchers, taking it to the next level meant dividing their time between the microscopes at Cal Academy and the UV black lights they used to scan for scorpions in the Mojave Desert near Lake Koehn P. conclusus and near Soda Lake for P.Soda. After collecting enough representatives of both species, they brought them back to Cal Academy, where they spent hours poring over the specimens – describing them in detail, meticulously measuring the scorpion’s body parts, and making comparisons between these new species and closely related ways of writing, and taking high-quality photographs for use in the newspaper.

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In August 2022, the paper was finally published. The crew observation question from 2013 was finally answered – it was representative of the P. conclusus Species. At the time of the paper’s publication, Forbes and Jain were seniors in high school.

“When I saw how young they were, wow, that’s pretty amazing,” Nisani said. “I’ve shared it with my students… You could be the next person to find something… I don’t care if it’s in the skies, at the bottom of the ocean, or in your backyard desert area – there’s something there to discover.” . as these children did.”

And for Scorpios, it turns out there’s still a lot to explore.

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“If you look at most vertebrate groups, such as mammals or birds, there are probably more researchers studying them than there are species,” Esposito said. As for scorpions, she said, “maybe about 15 people study scorpions worldwide — and there are 2,700 species and counting.”

According to Esposito, scorpion research is currently in its “discovery phase.”

“Most of the work that’s still being done is still trying to understand what species exist in the world and how they fit into the broader scorpion tree of life,” Esposito said. “The kind of really detailed information about what scorpions are doing in their environment hasn’t been done yet.” And, she added, that’s true of “virtually every invertebrate species on Earth.”

Much of the current research involving scorpions, Nisani said, aims to find medicinal uses for some species’ venom. Nisani and Esposito are two researchers who are instead focused on understanding more about scorpion behavior and evolution.

A scorpion is a mystery encased in an exoskeleton. These spiny-tailed arachnids have existed for 400 million years, even longer than the first dinosaurs, and are found in a wide variety of habitats and on every continent except Antarctica. Scorpions are nocturnal, they glow in the dark under UV light (and we don’t know why, by the way), and they probably practice cannibalism from time to time.

But they also have a soft side.

“Scorpion mothers are very caring for their young compared to most other invertebrates,” Jain said. Scorpions give birth to “litters” of live young. After birth, the young “scorplings,” as they are called, cling to their mother for a few weeks, like a small army of miniature adults, riding like possums on their mother’s back.

Among the invertebrates, scorpions are the top dog in the food web. But on a larger scale, many vertebrates, including some bats, consider scorpions to be tasty snacks.

The two species described by Jain and Forbes are unique because of their ecology specific to alkaline lake beds and their severely restricted range. Furthermore, according to the Zookeys paper, these two species can be distinguished from others Paruroctonus among others by “deeply serrated pedipalp fingers in males, specific patterns of fuscous pigmentation, unique setal numbers, and unique morphometric ratios”. Translation: Details of tweezers, coloring, number of hairs and body proportions fixed P.Soda and P. conclusus Apart from related species.

P Soda, found in San Luis Obispo County near Soda Lake, is also one of the greatest types within the Paruroctonus genus and P. conclusus has a lighter color and is relatively small compared to other alkaline sinks Paruroctonus.

The habitats in which these species occur are easily overlooked as dry lake floor zones of little ecological importance. They are often prime locations for development.

While P.Soda The mountain range is protected as part of Carrizo Plain National Monument, located a few hours northwest of Los Angeles. P. conclususThe range of is not protected at all – as far as Jain and Forbes are concerned, given its limited size and the threats it faces, from urban development in nearby areas like Fremont Valley to the installation of solar farms.

P. conclususThe tiny range of could easily be wiped out.

“It’s all or nothing,” Forbes said. “The main concern with this particular Scorpio is development. I’ve driven through this area a number of times, often with Prakrit, and every time you drive through there, in the California City area, new solar panel farms are being built… This scorpion I think is pretty Lots of good to do, if nothing is built on it,” he said. “But if something is built on it, then they will probably die out.”

By writing the full species description, Jain and Harper are laying the groundwork for more formal population estimates to come. They were recently certified for this by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Such assessments could lead to the protection of habitats – and ultimately species.

Admittedly, it may be difficult for some to get excited at the prospect of more scurrying around. However, it helps to remember that Scorpio’s success is connected to something much bigger P. conclusus, P.Soda, or even their entire genus. As Esposito explains, “Healthy, stable ecosystems provide ecosystem services that sustain humans, and healthy, stable ecosystems are made up of many different species that have evolved together over time to create these stable connections in the ecosystem.” Scorpios are anchored in this web of connectivity and interdependence.

“Just the fact that a certain species of scorpion lives in this environment means there’s something very special about it,” Jain said. “Besides that one scorpion, there are probably many other things that are special about this habitat.” While they may make you shudder, scorpions play a role in the ecosystems that sustain us all, so keep that in mind when you the next time you encounter an unexpected guest on your trip to the desert or even in your slipper.

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