Amazing Discovery: Teenagers in California discover two new species of scorpions

As two teenagers scrolled through the collaborative science platform iNaturalist three years ago, a mysterious scorpion that a citizen scientist encountered near a Mojave Desert lake captured their attention.

Users upload observations of plants, animals, and fungi to iNaturalist, and its community identifies them. Six years had passed since this entry had last been identified.

The 19-year-old Forbes and the 18-year-old Jain, who met working at a nature preserve and frequently scroll through the platform, also couldn’t find a match. To determine what type of scorpion they were looking at, they studied various scorpions, but ultimately realized it was an unidentified species.

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On iNaturalist, they discovered a second unknown scorpion not long after. The teens quickly realized that the critter had never been identified before this time.

It was immediately apparent that they were something new, Jain told CBC Radio’s “As It Happens.”

 With Lauren Esposito, arachnology curator at the California Academy of Sciences, Forbes and Jain went through every step of describing a new species, including collecting specimens of both new scorpions over the summer break and comparing them to others.

The teens searched for males and female scorpions at the iNaturalist sites in California, Soda Lake and Koehn Lake. Blacklights were used to find the scorpions, which glow under ultraviolet light, and they poked around cracks in the soil and bushes known to hide scorpions.

Having achieved their goal, Forbes and Jain have published a paper in ZooKeys introducing the two species. The authors describe two new species of playa scorpions found near the dry lake beds of central and southern California, Paruroctonus soda and Paruroctonus conclusus.

Both species evolved in alkaline environments, namely salty, dry lakes with high pH levels. Both species exhibit very specialized adaptations, so they can only be found near the lakes where they were first spotted; for P. soda, it is soda lake, while for P. conclusus, it is koehn lake.

Because its entire range is within the federally managed Carrizo Plain National Monument, P. soda is naturally protected. As Esposito points out, the species can be wiped out by the construction of just one solar farm, mine or housing development, but it has a very limited range.

A federal conservation area for P. conclusus and efforts to reduce external threats to its habitat, which are threatened by human-caused climate change, were advocated in the paper by the authors.

There is a surprising amount of plant and animal diversity in desert ecosystems, and scorpions, despite not being as well-loved as some other wildlife, may serve as an indicator of health and balance.

A Los Angeles Times article by Jonah Valdez quotes Cameron Barrows as saying, “Humans depend on biodiversity for their survival. If we reduce biodiversity, we have fewer chances of surviving.” Indicators of the desert’s extreme biodiversity include scorpions and other animals.

When Forbes and Jain made their groundbreaking discoveries, they were still high school students. Currently, Forbes is studying evolutionary biology at the University of Arizona, and Jain is studying integrative biology at the University of California, Berkeley.

But their passion for scorpions virtually ensures they will stay in touch: They are working on a book about California’s scorpions and hope to do even more field work together in the future. Additionally, they are working with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to determine whether P. conclusus might qualify for federal protection as a threatened species.
“These kids are able to find anything,” says Esposito to Matthew Cantor of the Guardian. “You set them out in a landscape and they say, ‘Here are all the snakes, scorpions, butterflies,’ and it’s amazing.”

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