First Look

Two Young Researchers, Two New Scorpions

September 23, 2022

Just another day on the playa. The sun beats down relentlessly. The baked earth radiates heat from below. And a scorpion rests, tucked away in one of the cracks in the salty, clay-rich soil. Its toffee-hued, waxy exoskeleton, covered in fine sensory hairs, protects it from drying out, and its pectines — the comb-like chemosensory organs on its belly — taste the ground below it. 

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

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

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 attainable 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 paper was years in the making.

It all began in 2011, when Cal Academy arachnologist Sarah Crews observed a mystery scorpion near Koehn Lake. Crews uploaded the image of this scorpion in 2013 to iNaturalist, a website where people share observations and identify species collaboratively. It sat there for years, accumulating line upon line of suggested identifications from other iNaturalist users. With each passing year, the “Activity” section for this observation more closely resembled a shopping list after a grocery run, with each suggested species crossed off.

At the time that Crews uploaded the observation in 2013, Jain and Forbes were both about 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 at a Mount Diablo bioblitz that Jain met his first scorpion, a Western forest scorpion — which, incidentally, had been found by iNaturalist cofounder Kenichi Ueda. Forbes met his first scorpion at the Death Valley visitor center, and both continued cultivating their interest in the world’s creepy-crawlies ever since those encounters (see Harper’s and Prakrit’s Instagrams for peak creepy crawly content). 

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

“We got to know each other through scorpions, but our interest was all sorts of different animals as well,” Forbes said. “We’ve kind of honed in on scorpions over time.”

At this point, Forbes and Jain are iNaturalist power users, having each provided over 20,000 identifications each on the platform. They came across Crews’s still-unidentified 2011 scorpion observation from Koehn Lake when perusing the site in 2019. Recognizing something unusual, the two, along with Esposito, began the process of collecting and eventually describing this first new species. In 2021, they added a second, P. soda, after they found another unidentified scorpion observation on the platform. 

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

For the young researchers, taking it to the next level meant splitting their time between the microscopes at the Cal Academy and the UV blacklights they used to look for scorpions in the Mojave desert, near Koehn Lake for 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, taking meticulous measurements of the scorpion’s body parts, writing up comparisons between these new species and closely related species, and taking high quality photos for use in the paper. 

Variation of Paruroctonus soda across their range. (Photo courtesy of Prakrit Jain and Harper Forbes)
Four adult Paruroctonus conclusus. (Photo courtesy of Prakrit Jain and Harper Forbes)

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

“When I saw how young these two were, like, wow, this is quite amazing,” Nisani said. “I shared it with my students…You could be the next person who finds 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 be discovered, like these kids did.”

And for scorpions, it turns out that there is still a lot to be discovered. 

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

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

“The majority of the work that’s still being done is still trying to understand what species are out there 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 do in their environments has not been done yet.” And, she added, that’s true “for basically every invertebrate species on Earth.”

Much of the current research involving scorpions, Nisani said, is aimed at finding medical uses for some species’s venom. Nisani and Esposito are two researchers focusing instead on understanding more about scorpion behavior and evolution, respectively. 

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

But they have a soft side too. 

“Scorpion mothers are quite caring to their young, compared to most other invertebrates,” Jain said. Scorpions give birth to “litters” of live young. After birth, the young “scorplings,” as they’re called, cling to their mother for a couple of weeks, like a small army of miniature adults, riding around on their mother’s back in baby-opossum-like fashion.  

Among invertebrates, scorpions are the top dog in the food web. But in the larger scheme, many vertebrates, including some bats, consider scorpions tasty snacks.

The two species described by Jain and Forbes are unique because of their alkaline-lake-bed-specific ecology and highly restricted range. Additionally, according to the Zookeys paper, these two species can be differentiated from other Paruroctonus by, among other features, “deeply scalloped pedipalp fingers in males, specific patterns of fuscous pigmentation, unique setal counts, and unique morphometric ratios.” Translation: specifics about pincers, coloration, number of hairs, and body ratios set 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 within the Paruroctonus genus, and P. conclusus is lighter in color and relatively small in comparison to other alkali sink Paruroctonus

The habitats where these species are found are easily overlooked as dry lake bed zones of little ecological importance. They are often prime spots for development.

Paruroctonus conclusus habitat, taken in July 2021. (Photo courtesy of Prakrit Jain and Harper Forbes)

While P. soda’s range is protected as part of the Carrizo Plain National Monument, which lies a few hours northwest of Los Angeles, P. conclusus’s range is not protected at all — which concerns Jain and Forbes, given its limited size and the threats it faces, from urban development in nearby areas like Fremont Valley to solar farm installation. 

P. conclusus’s tiny range could be easily wiped out. 

“It’s all or nothing,” Forbes said. “The main concern with this specific scorpion is development. I’ve gone through this area quite a few times, a lot of those times with Prakrit, and every time you pass through there, the California City area, there are new solar panel farms being built … This scorpion, I think, is pretty much good to go if nothing is built on it,” he said. “But if something is built on top of it, then they’ll go extinct, quite possibly.”

By writing up the full species description, Jain and Harper are laying the groundwork for more formal population assessments to come. They have recently become certified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature to do just that. Such assessments could lead to protection for the habitats — and, ultimately, the species.

Granted, it may be hard for some to feel enthused at the prospect of more scorpions skittering about. However, it helps to remember that scorpion success is connected to something much bigger than P. conclusus, P. soda, or even their entire genus. As Esposito explains, “healthy, stable ecosystems provide ecosystem services that keep humans alive, and healthy, stable ecosystems are composed of a lot of different species that have evolved through time together to create those stable links in the ecosystem.” Scorpions are entrenched in this web of connectivity and interdependency. 

“The very fact that there is a distinct species of scorpion living in this environment means there’s something very special about it,” Jain said. “There’s probably many other things that are special about that habitat besides that one scorpion.” Even if they make you shudder, scorpions play a role in the ecosystems that keep us all alive, so remember that the next time you run across an unexpected guest on your trip to the desert, or even in your slipper. 

About the Author

Lia Keener is the assistant editor for Bay Nature.