Two young researchers describe two new scorpions

Just another day on the playa. The sun beats down relentlessly. Terracotta emits heat from below. And a scorpion lies, nestled in one of the cracks in the salty, clay-rich soil. Its waxy, caramel-colored exoskeleton, covered in fine sensory hairs, protects it from drying out, and its pectins – the comb-like chemosensory organs on its belly – taste the ground below.

Unbeknownst to this eight-legged arachnid, it has just been given a new name: Paruroctonus conclusus. Its species epithet, conclusive, is Latin for “restricted” and reflects how extremely small the strip of land near Lake Koehn in Kern County it appears to inhabit. To our knowledge, the entire species lives on less than one square kilometer.

As of August 2022, this species and another Mojave Desert relative of the same genus, P. soda, have been named and formally described in a research paper in Zookeys written by two young naturalists, 18-year-old Prakrit Jain and 19-year-old Harper Forbes, along with Lauren Esposito, curator of arachnology at the California Academy of Science.

From 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, so to speak.”

Their item was years in the making.

It all started in 2011, when Cal Academy arachnologist Sarah Crews observed a mysterious scorpion near Lake Koehn. Crews downloaded the image of this scorpion in 2013 for iNaturalist, a website where people share their sightings and identify species collaboratively. It sat there for years, accumulating line after line of identifications suggested by other iNaturalist users. With each passing year, the “Activity” section for this sighting looked more like a shopping list after a grocery run, with each suggested species crossed out.

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

Jain grew up attending bioblitzes, events dedicated to species identification and exploration, and it was during a Mount Diablo bioblitz that Jain encountered his first scorpion, a western forest scorpion. – which, incidentally, was found by iNaturalist co-founder Kenichi Ueda. Forbes met his first scorpion at the Death Valley Visitor Center, and the two have continued to cultivate their interest in the creepy critters of the world ever since those encounters (see Harper’s and from Prakrit Instagrams for cutting edge creepy crawling content).

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

“We got to know each other from the scorpions, but we were also interested in all kinds of different animals,” Forbes said. “We kind of refined the scorpions over time.”

At this point, Forbes and Jain are power users of iNaturalist, having each provided over 20,000 IDs each on the platform. They came across Crews’ still-unidentified scorpion sighting in 2011 from Lake Koehn while reading the site in 2019. Recognizing something unusual, the two, along with Esposito, began the collecting process and eventually description of this first new species. In 2021 they added a second one, P. sodaafter finding another unidentified scorpion observation On the platform.

“These students had the motivation, but more importantly, they had this curiosity,” said Zia Nisani, a biology professor at Antelope Valley College and a scorpion behavior expert who studies another scorpion in the Paruroctone gender. “I bet you they weren’t the only two people who watched these two [iNaturalist observations]but they were the first to take it to the next level which led to the publication of the identification of new species.

For young researchers, taking it to the next level meant dividing their time between Cal Academy’s microscopes and the UV blacklights they used to search for scorpions in the Mojave Desert near Lake Koehn for P. conclusus and near Soda Lake for P. soda. After collecting enough representatives of both species, they brought them back to the Cal Academy, where they spent hours poring over the specimens – describing them in detail, taking meticulous measurements of the scorpion’s body parts, writing comparisons between these new species and closely related species. , and taking high quality Pictures for use in paper.

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In August 2022, the document was finally published. The question of the Crews sighting in 2013 was finally answered – it was representative of the P. conclusus species. At the time of the article’s publication, Forbes and Jain were high school students.

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

And for scorpions, it turns out there’s still a lot to discover.

“If you look at most vertebrate groups, like mammals or birds, there are probably more researchers studying them than there are species,” Esposito said. For scorpions, she says, “maybe around 15 people in the world are studying scorpions — and there are 2,700 species and counting.”

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

“Most of the work that is still being done is still trying to understand what species exist in the world and how they fit into the larger 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 “for virtually every invertebrate species on Earth.”

Much of the current research on scorpions, Nisani said, is aimed at finding medical uses for the venom of certain species. Nisani and Esposito are two researchers who focus instead on understanding the behavior and evolution of scorpions, respectively.

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

But they have a soft, tender side too.

“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 on their mother’s back like a baby opossum. .

Among invertebrates, scorpions are the top dog in the food web. But in a larger scheme, many vertebrates, including some bats, view scorpions as delicious snacks.

The two species described by Jain and Forbes are unique due to their specific alkaline lakebed ecology and highly restricted range. Additionally, according to the Zookeys article, these two species can be differentiated from the others. Paruroctone by, among other features, “deeply scalloped pedipalp toes in males, specific fuscous pigmentation patterns, unique setal counts, and unique morphometric ratios”. Translation: details about claws, coloring, number of hairs and defined body proportions 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 largest species in the Paruroctone gender, and P. conclusus is lighter in color and relatively small compared to other alkaline sinks Paruroctone.

The habitats where these species are found are easily overlooked as dry lakebed areas of little ecological significance. These are often privileged places of development.

Whereas P. sodas is protected as part of the Carrizo Plain National Monument, which is a few hours northwest of Los Angeles, P. conclususThe range of is not protected at all – which is of concern to Jain and Forbes, given its limited size and the threats it faces, from urban development in nearby areas like Fremont Valley to the settlement of solar farms.

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

“It’s all or nothing,” Forbes said. “The main concern for this specific scorpion is development. I’ve been through this area many times, often with Prakrit, and every time you pass through there, the California City area, there are new solar panel farms in construction… This scorpion, I think, is pretty much a lot of good to do if nothing is built on it,” he said. “But if something is built on it, then they will, most likely, disappear.”

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

Admittedly, it can be difficult for some to feel excited about other scorpions walking around. However, it is useful to remember that the success of the scorpion is linked to something much bigger than P. conclusus, P. soda, or even their entire gender. As Esposito explains, “healthy, stable ecosystems provide ecosystem services that keep humans alive, and healthy, stable ecosystems are made up of many different species that have evolved together over time to create these stable bonds in life. ‘ecosystem”. Scorpios are entrenched in this web of connectedness and interdependence.

“The very fact that there is a distinct species of scorpion living in this environment means there is something very special about it,” Jain said. “There are probably a lot of other things that are special about this habitat besides this scorpion.” As chilling as they may be, scorpions play a role in the ecosystems that keep us all alive, so remember that the next time you come across an unexpected guest on your desert trip, or even in your slipper .

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