Prakrit Jain and Harper Forbes were not always interested in scorpions. The two high school students, both from the Bay area, were much more fascinated by other creepy crawly creatures.
“Scorpions are more of a common point between us,” Jain explained. “At the time that we met, he was much more of a herpetology guy”—that is, amphibians, and reptiles—“and I was much more interested in things like centipedes.”
But in 2019, the two spotted an unknown-to-science scorpion species on iNaturalist, an app devoted to tracking species. And in May 2021, they came across another unmapped arachnid. With the help of the California Academy of Sciences and its curator of arachnology Lauren Esposito, the two were able to classify these species as Paruroctonus conclusus and Paruroctonus soda, respectively, and publish their findings in the scientific journal Zookeys.
I spoke with the duo about how they knew these scorpions were special—and why scorpions deserve to be thought of as more than creepy crawly creatures . Our interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Hannah Docter-Loeb: How did you guys amass all this knowledge about scorpions?
Harper Forbes: It was mostly self taught. We didn’t have any one given person who would teach us all this stuff. It was mostly pulling information from different people, but also reading a lot of papers.
Prakrit Jain: And from doing fieldwork because a lot of the information you get either from just random people you’re talking to on the internet, or from papers that were written a really long time ago, is often inaccurate, or at least confusing. So most of the time it takes is actually going into the field and finding the scorpions for ourselves and examining them under a microscope for ourselves before we can actually figure out what we’re looking at and what’s really going on.
How does one… catch a scorpion?
Jain: We almost always photograph the scorpion at home as using the white-background setup in the field is a bit difficult. We catch the scorpions in little boxes, normally just by scooping them up. Photographing live scorpions is one of the most difficult parts of the process; getting a good image can take hours or even days of photography. I have to wait for each scorpion to stay still then meticulously position it so that it is in the same pose as all of the others. For some species this is relatively easy but for others, photographing a single individual can take hours. Getting them to stay still and positioning them well is a technique I’m still working on.
How did you know these scorpions were new?
Jain: It’s a combination of different things. I think one of the things we use at first is just the ecology of the scorpion. So for instance, both of these scorpions are living in a very specific alkali sink environment near dry lake beds. And because they’re living in this area, they’re not really having any contact with their relatives, so we know they’re genetically isolated. That already tells us that they’re probably undescribed species.
But then when we look at them morphologically, we can find differences in the structure of the hands or in the positioning of hairs on their legs and arms and other places, and other features of these scorpions that help us determine that they’re a different species.
Forbes: There’s also this indescribable feeling of being able to identify something from a photo as being new. I don’t know really how to describe it, but you can, without looking up close and examining the placement of small bumps on the hands or hairs—you kind of just know when you see it, if that makes sense.
Jain: It’s like if you’re meeting somebody you haven’t met before, you can tell whether it’s somebody you recognize or whether it’s somebody you don’t. We have a pretty good handle on what most scorpions look like.
What was it like to get your paper published? That process seems pretty rough!
Forbes: I’ll be completely honest, as far as the process goes with the journal itself, I understood next to nothing. I understand what it means for reviewers that receive the paper to go over the paper and have to make corrections and whatnot. But past that there’s small parts of the process and different status updates that we honestly had very little connection to. On our end, it was getting a draft in there, getting reviews, and then after that, all these strange little changes or production choices that had to be made, and then publication.
Many people find scorpions icky, or even a little scary. What do you wish people knew about them?
Forbes: When thinking about animals that are threatened, try to think about a larger picture and not just the elephants in Africa and whatnot. The scorpions, like one of the ones we described are facing threats as well.
Jain: The main threats towards most California scorpions, and generally the main threats to many California species, is development within their range. Historically, this was mostly agriculture but currently suburban sprawl and solar farm development are some of the biggest dangers.
In the western Mojave desert, where P. conclusus lives, these are both especially prominent dangers. Whenever possible, such development should be replaced by alternatives that use less land or should be done in already-degraded areas. There is rarely a good excuse to destroy acres of pristine desert habitat home to many rare plants and animals, a landscape that likely took hundreds or thousands of years to get to the way it is and is entirely irreplaceable within our lifetimes. Development at some distance also can alter the hydrology of the area that P. conclusus lives in by depleting underwater aquifers or changing runoff patterns, as can the reduced rainfall and increased temperatures resulting from climate change. This could increase this scorpion’s vulnerability by further reducing the already small band of suitable habitat it lives in.
When we look at species like these scorpions, even if you are a person who doesn’t really care much about scorpions, when you see these scorpions threatened, that means that whatever else is living there is probably also threatened by the same thing. So protecting these scorpions is a good way of protecting the entire ecosystem, which is something we all rely on