What humans can learn from scorpions
Alumna Lauren Esposito blazes a trail as a scorpion researcher and advocate for LGBTQ scientists.
They eat almost anything. They glow in ultraviolet light. And they’re so old they predate the dinosaurs.
These are just a few fascinating facts about scorpions that hooked Lauren Esposito, a Graduate Center alumna (Ph.D. ’11, Biology) and now one of the world’s leading female experts on the long-lived, predatory arachnids. She is the curator of arachnology at the California Academy of Sciences, and, in 2017, she was part of an international team of researchers that discovered three new species of club-tailed scorpions.
Esposito has been curious about insects and other invertebrates for as long as she can remember. “As a kid I was into flipping over the pavers in the garden and looking at earwigs and roly-polies,” she said.
The Texas native was first introduced to scorpions as an undergraduate intern at the American Museum of Natural History, where she was mentored by renowned scorpion expert Lorenzo Prendini.
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“I started to understand that in studying some of the oldest organisms on land — they've been living on land for 435 million years — that we could start to have a really good understanding of how life on Earth has evolved,” Esposito said.
How Tough Are They?
Like mammals, scorpions give birth to live young, a fact that surprised Esposito at first. They also produce specialized venom, custom-tailored to prey and predators. They’ve evolved over time to become some of the most resilient animals on the planet.
These carnivorous arthropods will eat just about anything: insects, spiders, mice, lizards, and even other scorpions. They hunt at night and when the pickings are slim, they can survive without food for more than a year. Stinging with long, flexible tails, scorpions produce venom “cocktails” that contain neuropeptides, salts, enzymes, and antimicrobials designed for specific targets.
Some venoms are made to immobilize prey, Esposito explained. “It also contains proteins to help them escape from predators, typically neuropeptides, that send pain signals by disrupting the vertebrate pain pathway,” she said.
Scorpion stings can cause swelling, burning, loss of breath, convulsions, and extreme pain in humans. Yet, of about 2,500 known species of scorpions, fewer than 1% have venom potent enough to kill us. (Antivenom is widely available in Arizona, the only state where scorpions are lethal to humans, and deaths are rare in the U.S.)
“The reason that scorpion venom is harmful to humans is because we share a nervous system, or the architecture of a nervous system, with things that eat scorpions like mice and bats,” Esposito said.
Over time, the venom of some scorpions has become more toxic — one being the Arizona bark scorpion, Centruroides sculpturatus, the most venomous scorpion found in North America. “Primarily because the predators that are attacking them have become more resistant to the effects of their venom,” Esposito said.
Researchers are now studying scorpion venom for use in pain relief, antimicrobials, and treatments for cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, and other conditions.
Lessons in adaptation
Through the millennia, scorpions have developed phenomenal skills of adaptation, a topic that Esposito has focused on for years.
“They've persisted since before flowering plants, since before insects, since before dinosaurs,” she said. “And yet, at the same time, they're affected by the same things that affect many species on Earth, like global change and human development.”
They’ve literally changed shape to adapt to their physical surroundings. “There are scorpions that are adapted to living in rock crevices; they tend to be sort of flat and not particularly hairy,” Esposito said, and others have evolved to have long hairy legs to help them move through sand. “Scorpions have really evolved to take advantage of basically every nook and cranny of the environment.”
A broader perspective
Humans can, perhaps, take a lesson in survival from these hardy creatures, today found in every region of the globe, except Antarctica and New Zealand. “The world is facing some of the biggest challenges that humanity has ever known,” said Esposito, who is currently studying how scorpions in California are adapting to megafires. And the science community will need to take an all-hands-on-deck approach to tackle the challenges of climate change, she said. “The only way that we're going to do it is by increasing the diversity of people working to solve those challenges,” Esposito said.
This involves moving beyond “the traditional framework of western science,” the arachnologist said, to embrace Indigenous knowledge and include communities living on the front lines of global climate change.
Esposito is not just preaching when she talks about diversity.
In 2013, she co-founded Islands and Seas, an educational nonprofit in Baha California Sur, Mexico, that aims to make science accessible for young researchers and local communities. Each year, the organization hosts educational programs in ecotourism, sustainable development, and environmental science.
In 2018, Esposito founded 500 Queer Scientists, a visibility campaign for LGBTQ scientists. “I'd really never worked in a lab with other queer scientists, I'd never had queer mentors, I'd never had queer professors,” she said. “I launched this visibility campaign as a way of finding my community, but also as a way of helping people within my community connect to one another and share stories of success.”
Esposito shared advice for students and other scientists who want to affect positive change through their work. “Lean into yourself,” she said. “Think about yourself, your background, your community, and the things that you hold most dear and lean into those. Because those are your greatest assets in terms of being a scientist and what you can bring to the table.”
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