California Teens Discovered Two New Scorpion Species In Dry Lakebeds: ‘These Kids Can Find Anything’

By Zainab Pervez in Nature On 19th September 2022
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California now has two new scorpions on its list of species, thanks to the efforts of two keen-eyed high school students from the Bay Area and the California Academy of Sciences. Harper Forbes and Prakrit Jain, avid users on the community science platform iNaturalist, discovered the new-to-science scorpions while trawling the thousands of observations uploaded by other users in the state.

Gayle Laird/California Academy of Sciences

Prakrit Jain of Los Altos and Harper Forbes of Sunnyvale, 17 and 18 at the time, identified two new species – Paruroctonus soda and Paruroctonus conclusus – after a tip from social media and excursions into the harsh terrain the arachnids inhabit, aided by a black light and Jain’s mother’s car.

New species Paruroctonus soda and Paruroctonus conclusus are playa scorpions, meaning they can only be found around dry lake beds, or playas, from the deserts of Central and Southern California.

For scientists, conservation managers, and the growing communities of wildlife observers on platforms like iNaturalist, these newly described species provide a better understanding of California's biodiversity and the places most in need of protection.

Prakrit Jain

Jain and Forbes have been interested in ecology and wildlife “pretty much our whole lives”, Jain says. They had been drawn to the rugged Carrizo Plain by a photo of a nameless and unique-looking scorpion posted to the website iNaturalist.

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“As soon as we turned our flashlights on and saw it in reality, we knew immediately that this was an undescribed species,” Jain said of the May 2021 discovery. “It really looked very different from any other we had seen before.”

Sarah Crews

Specifically, it was larger than other scorpions of its genus, and its trunk and tail carried a darker hue. They scooped up the scorpion and several others in vials, hopped into Jain’s mom’s Honda Pilot, and drove along the bumpy dirt road back to camp.

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Soon, with the help of Lauren Esposito, an arachnologist at the California Academy of Sciences, they determined that this previously unknown species has likely existed along the ragged edge of the San Andreas fault for tens of thousands of years. They dubbed it Paruroctonus soda, a literal reference to the lake it calls home. 

But the pair weren’t quite done discovering new species.

Gayle Laird/California Academy of Sciences

A few months later, the students trekked into the Mojave Desert in Kern County where they found another hidden species of scorpion, living within a small patch of land, along the rim of a similar playa. They named this species Paruroctonus conclusus, a reference to the Latin word for restricted, closed or confined, describing its small, fragile habitat.

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“These kids can find anything,” says Lauren Esposito, an arachnologist at the California Academy of Sciences who collaborated with Jain and Forbes. “You set them out in a landscape and they’re like: ‘Here’s every species of snake, here’s every scorpion, every butterfly,’ and it’s kind of incredible.”

Their findings were published recently in the journal ZooKeys, where the authors argued that the Mojave Desert species should be regarded as endangered due to its limited range.

Jain, 18, is now a first-year student at the University of California, Berkeley; Forbes, 19, is at the University of Arizona. Both plan to continue studying ecology and evolutionary biology. Despite their busy schedules, they say they remained concerned about the survival of their discoveries.

Both P. soda and P. conclusus rely on the soft, alkaline-rich, clay soil found near the edge of playas to burrow into, and their survival depends on these playa conditions. But as global warming worsens and exacerbates California’s historic drought, conditions threaten to sap precious moisture from the soil and imperil the scorpions.

Development also poses a threat. Although P. soda’s home is a part of the Carrizo Plain National Monument and is protected from development, P. conclusus’ home falls within a small area of Bureau of Land Management property that is open to mining. It is also close to a pair of renewable energy projects.

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Jain says he will maintain a focus on scorpions, noting that the fate of a species like P conclusus has much broader implications.

“The conservation efforts are not meant for just P conclusus itself,” he says. “Its presence in the unique habitat indicates that there’s an entire ecosystem there with many probably relevant factors that we don’t fully understand. So when we’re aiming to preserve this landscape, the idea really is to preserve a completely unique ecosystem and all of the other plants and animals that are living in it for as long as possible.”

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