A Two California scorpion species that may have crawled under the radar for tens of thousands of years have finally been unmasked — thanks to the efforts of two Bay Area teenagers. And for an endangered species, the work of the students could prove life-saving.
Prakrit Jain of Los Altos and Harper Forbes of Sunnyvale, then 17 and 18, identified two new species – Paruroctonus soda and Paruroctonus conclusus — after a tip from social media and forays into rugged arachnid terrain, aided by a black light and Jain’s mom’s car.
It started when Jain and Forbes — who met while working at a wildlife sanctuary — discovered the unidentified scorpions on iNaturalist, a social network that allows people to share their observations of the natural world. Users around the world can upload photos of organisms they’ve discovered, and others with expertise in the field can identify them, Forbes explained.
With about 115 million observations recorded on the platform, “the real benefit for researchers is that such an enormous amount of data is available to anyone,” says Jain — data that “it would take thousands of people many lifetimes to assemble themselves.” .
Jain and Forbes have “been interested in ecology and wildlife for most of our lives,” says Jain.
“These kids can find anything,” says Lauren Esposito, an arachnologist at the California Academy of Sciences who has worked with Jain and Forbes. “You put them in a landscape and they say, ‘Here is every species of snake, here is every scorpion, every butterfly,’ and it’s kind of incredible.”
Students regularly check iNaturalist “to see if we notice anything.” Unidentified species frequently appear on the platform, but these two specimens caught their attention in part because of their small range. They were “geographically isolated,” Forbes says, living around what Esposito describes as salt lakes or alkaline plains — “a former Ice Age lake from 10,000 years ago that dried up over time,” leaving behind a brutal desert environment.
That means the scorpions — which look terrifying but appear to pose little danger to humans — “must be able to withstand super salty, super hot, dry and dry [conditions], and they can only do that by adapting over time. So these things have probably been living in these habitats for tens of thousands of years, during the last major ecosystem change,” says Esposito. “They’re just isolated there and really can’t exist in the surrounding desert.”
The specificity of their locations made it easier to identify the species without “doing a lot of background work to create a coherent description,” says Jain. But this peculiarity also poses risks for the scorpions: Any threat to their limited habitat, such as solar parks, could be catastrophic.
Last year, the students headed to two of California’s dry lakes, Soda Lake and Koehn Lake, where they used black lights to attempt to collect enough scorpions to conduct an in-depth study. “Finding scorpions is pretty easy if they’re actually out on a particular night. Almost all scorpions, with the exception of certain families, fluoresce under black light or UV light,” says Forbes. “It might prove quite difficult to collect them in the number we deem appropriate” – typically 10 – “if we didn’t have this tool with us.”
Then began the process of describing the species for a paper featuring Esposito published in ZooKeys journal last month – a lengthy effort made urgent by the environmental threat P conclusionwhose small habitat is not protected (P soda is fortunate to live within the Carrizo National Monument). It’s a lengthy process that involves detailed, comparative descriptions of something people have never seen before, Esposito says. “That’s why it’s so amazing that these two went through the whole process, because I think most people their age would say halfway through, ‘I’m done with this.'”
But the couple went ahead and named themselves P soda after the lake; P conclusion, they write in their article, “means restricted or limited, in reference to the scorpion’s high degree of habitat specialization and severely limited range.” The paper calls for a threat status for P conclusionbut getting that designation is another potentially years-long process, Esposito says.
She’s not surprised at the youthful success of Jain and Forbes. She met Jain when he was nine years old at a community science event. Hunting for scorpions, “he kind of tailed me as we walked around. And honestly, he knew more about the things we were seeing than I did,” she says. As for Forbes, “he taught himself how to hand-illustrate anatomical features” — some of which appear in the paper — “which many of my peers still find pretty awful after decades.”
Jain, 18, is now a freshman at the University of California, Berkeley; Forbes, 19, is at the University of Arizona. Both want to continue studying ecology and evolutionary biology.
Jain says he will continue to focus on Scorpios, noting that fate is kind of like P conclusion has far more far-reaching implications.
“Conservation efforts are not just for purpose P conclusion himself,” he says. “Its presence in this unique habitat indicates that there is an entire ecosystem with many likely relevant factors that we do not fully understand. So if we want to preserve this landscape, it’s really about preserving a completely unique ecosystem and all the other plants and animals that live in it for as long as possible.”