Look out, they’re hot on your tail

Team looking for shy scorpion on high flanks of Grand Mesa

Colorado Mesa University and the Western Investigations Team have joined forces to look for scorpions along the higher reaches of Grand Mesa. In the photo, student Marryssa Russell of the Western Investigations Team displays one of a number of specimens the team has collected in its search.

One night of scorpion hunting and “you feel like a ninja,” said student Marryssa Russell, shown here with her quarry.

Three varieties of scorpions are known to populate the Grand Valley, but there might be a fourth.

Determining that, and answering other questions about the arthropods, such as the highest elevation at which they can be found, is the next project for the Western Investigations Team of Colorado Mesa University and the Museum of Western Colorado.

Students in the biology and forensic programs at CMU already have started the process of collecting specimens, a nighttime process that depends on night vision, ultraviolet light, hand-eye coordination using forceps and no small amount of nerve.

Students already have collected a fair number of scorpions in the 6,000- to 6,800-foot elevation and will work up the side of Grand Mesa to determine how high scorpions live.

The scorpions of the Grand Valley “are something we know little if anything about,” said Mike Perry, former executive director of the museum and the team member who proposed the research idea.

There have been scattered, unconfirmed reports of scorpions atop the mesa, but they’re generally believed to live only as high as 9,000 feet, said Rick Dujay, director of the center for electron microscopy at CMU.

Specimen collecting requires UV light, which lights scorpions up like neon green denizens of computer games. They glow under the right conditions because of a chemical in their exoskeletons. The researchers use forceps to grab at the hard-shelled creatures without impaling them.

They’re frequently found at the base and in the branches of sagebrush.

One night of scorpion hunting and “you feel like a ninja,” CMU senior Maryssa Russell said.

Russell and classmates Dani Paszek and Caleb Carey were the first students on the CMU body farm, checking the soils for scorpions.

Though scorpions are predators, and cannibals to boot, the body farm was chosen because it’s a university research area, not because of the bodies.

The project will take a year, so not all of the students will see it through to the end. Scorpions also hibernate so the next phase of collecting will likely continue in the spring.

The project so far is purely scientific, but it will expand knowledge of western Colorado fauna, Perry said.

Besides, Carey said, “This is just fun stuff to do.”


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