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A Subterranean Surprise

A new species of scorpions nearly squirmed past a couple of UNLV graduate students. The story behind the Death Valley arthropod's discovery.
Research  |  May 8, 2012  |  By Shane Bevell
UNLV graduate students Matthew Graham (left) and Michael Webber teamed up in the discovery of a new scorpion species in Death Valley. (Aaron Mayes/UNLV Photo Services)

It almost never happened. Matthew Graham's discovery of a new species of scorpion is one of those stories about a string of easily missed moments.

It was September 2009 and Graham was taking the last survey on the last night of the last research trip to Death Valley. His inventory of the area's scorpion species was part of a collaborative project with UNLV professor Jef Jaeger and the National Park Service.

A tiny scorpion glowed bright green under his ultraviolet flashlight. The Ph.D. candidate from the UNLV School of Life Sciences nearly dismissed it as a juvenile of a common species in the area. But this guy was especially small, about the size of a thumbnail, and something about its claws just wasn't quite right.

Graham grabbed the tiny squirming arthropod with his rubber-tipped scorpion tweezers and placed in into a Ziploc bag for transport back to UNLV. He immediately knew it was a member of the genus Wernerius. That's odd, he thought, this little guy is more than 400 kilometers from his usual home. He knew of only two species of the rare genus: one from along the Colorado River and one in Joshua Tree National Park.

On a Shelf

Graham brought the scorpion back to his graduate student cubicle on the UNLV campus, where it sat for several months as he got back to his studies and teaching duties.

Curious about the bizarre find, fellow Ph.D. candidate Michael Webber, who worked in a cubicle in the same room as Graham, kept bugging him to take the scorpion off the shelf for a closer look.

Graham and Webber each bring a different expertise to their collaboration. Graham studies the biogeography of scorpions of the American West, so he knew that the tiny little scorpion from Death Valley was definitely out of place. He uses the DNA from scorpions to investigate how geologic and climatic events have influenced the evolution of desert organisms. Webber is an ecologist who studies the reproductive biology of scorpions and different aspects of their behavior.

"The first thing we did was a literature search," Webber said. "We knew it was of the Wernerius genus because of the unique spine on its tail, so we looked up published descriptions of the other two species -- Wernerius spicatus and Wernerius mumai -- and compared them to the Death Valley scorpion."

She noted that the Death Valley scorpion had a distinct tail, pincers, and reproductive organs. "Differences in anatomical characters like these can indicate that you are dealing with a different species," Webber said. She grew up in Las Vegas and received her undergraduate degree in biology from UNLV.

After describing the specimen in meticulous detail, the pair submitted a paper to a scientific journal for review. They submitted their findings to ZooKeys, a peer-reviewed, open-access journal that supports free exchange of ideas and information in systematic zoology, phylogeny and biogeography.

The team named the scorpion Wernerius inyoensis because it was found in the Inyo Mountains. Graham hasn't found another of this new scorpion, but he is always on the lookout. He hypothesizes that it could live completely underground and might only rarely emerge to the surface.

"Some would argue that the more species we find, especially new venomous animals like scorpions, the better our chances for discovering new biochemical tools that could aid in human health and medicine," said Graham, who grew up collecting scorpions, reptiles, and amphibians as a hobby. "It's also cool to show the world that there are still places to explore and new things to discover."