California teenagers Harper Forbes and Prakrit Jain were scrolling the collaborative science platform iNaturalist three years ago when one particular entry caught their eyes: a mysterious scorpion that a citizen scientist had encountered near a lake in the Mojave Desert.
On iNaturalist, users upload observations of flora, fauna and fungi, and the platform’s community works together to ID them. But this particular entry had been unidentified for six years.
Forbes, 19, and Jain, 18, who met working at a nature preserve and regularly scroll through the platform, couldn’t come up with a match for this creature, either. They studied various scorpions to see if they could figure out what kind they were looking at, but ultimately, they realized the entry showed an unidentified species.
Not long after, they spotted a second unknown scorpion on iNaturalist. This time, the teens quickly realized that once again, the critter had never been identified before.
"We immediately knew that they were something new," Jain told CBC Radio's “As It Happens.”
Working with Lauren Esposito, an arachnology curator at the California Academy of Sciences, Forbes and Jain went through all the official steps required to describe a new species, including collecting specimens of the two new scorpions over their summer break and comparing them to known species.
The two teens visited the sites of the iNaturalist observations—California’s Soda Lake and Koehn Lake—to search for male and female scorpions. They used blacklights to hunt for the animals, which glow under ultraviolet light, and poked around in known scorpion hiding places, including cracks in the soil and in bushes.
Now, all their hard work has paid off: Forbes and Jain are the lead authors of a new paper introducing the two species published in the journal ZooKeys in August. In it, they describe Paruroctonus soda and Paruroctonus conclusus, two brand-new species of playa scorpions, which are found near the dry lake beds of central and southern California.
The two species evolved to live in alkaline environments—specifically, in dry, salty lake basins with high pH levels. Their adaptations are so specialized that both species can only be found living near the lakes where the citizen scientists first spotted them—Soda Lake for P. soda and Koehn Lake for P. conclusus.
P. soda is naturally protected because its entire range is located inside the federally managed Carrizo Plain National Monument. But P. conclusus, which has a severely limited range, could be “wiped out with the construction of a single solar farm, mine or housing development,” says Esposito in a statement.
In their paper, the authors urged federal land managers to create a conservation area for P. conclusus and “work towards reducing external threats to its habitat,” which is threatened by development and human-caused climate change.
Though scorpions may not be as well-loved as some other wildlife, their survival—or demise—can serve as an indicator of health and balance in desert ecosystems, which are home to a surprisingly high amount of plant and animal diversity.
“Humans are dependent on biodiversity, and if we reduce biodiversity, we are reducing our opportunities to survive on this planet,” says Cameron Barrows, an ecologist at the University of California, Riverside, to the Los Angeles Times’ Jonah Valdez. “And scorpions, along with other wildlife, are indicators of the extreme levels of biodiversity that the desert has.”
Forbes and Jain were still high school students when they made their groundbreaking discoveries. Now, though, they’re in college: Forbes at the University of Arizona studying evolutionary biology and Jain at the University of California, Berkeley, for integrative biology.
But their passion for these creatures virtually guarantees the two friends will stay in touch: They’re working on a book about California’s scorpions and hope to do even more field work to identify new species together. They’re also working with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to determine if P. conclusus could be considered threatened and, as a result, be eligible for federal protections.
“These kids can find anything,” says Esposito to the Guardian’s Matthew Cantor. “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.”