Over 7 years ago, Dr. Victor Fet, Josh Greenwood, and myself, began sequencing some scorpions that Dr. Fet and his colleagues (Alexander Gromov I think) collected from the deserts of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan on an expedition funded by National Geographic. I remember sitting in Dr. Fet’s office upon his return, watching him enthusiastically show me photo after photo from the trip. Dr. Fet was excited for two reasons; 1) he found someone who genuinely appreciated the adventure he had just endured and the scientific discoveries he had made, and 2) because he brought back tissue samples from the scorpions he had collected.
As an undergradauate, I admittedly didn’t really understand why this was so exciting… but helped sequence the samples anyway. They were problematic (primer problems), but we pressed on. The words ‘phylogeography’ and ‘populations’ kept being thrown around, and Dr. Fet kept ranting about some ancient river systems and sand deserts. Some sequences came back clean, some dirty, and eventually we had a hodgepodge of sequences for a project that one could consider just half-done.
Fast-forward 7 or so years. There I was a PhD student in Dr. Brett Riddle’s biogeography lab… with fading memories of those exotic scorpions from the Old World that Dr. Fet collected during his mystic desert travels. I can’t remember how it started, but somehow those scorpions came up as a topic of discussion in one of our emails. Next thing I knew, tissues from two species, Anomalobuthus rickemersi and Liobuthus kessleri, arrived in my mailbox at UNLV.
Unfortunately, by this time the tissue samples were somewhat degraded… some would sequence, others would not. This would take some work. Luckily, my friend and colleague Viki Hemmings was also in the lab at this time. Originally from Hungary, Viki’s curiosity was piqued by these Central Asian scorpions that were giving me so much trouble. That’s when she joined the team.
Viki is exceptionally skilled when it comes to lab work, so with her on board the project was finally (7 years later!!) underway. We decided to redo the entire project, sequencing two genes for each specimen, to conduct a comparative phylogeography of these co-distributed dune scorpions in the Karakum and Kyzylkum deserts. This was cool, and thankfully my UNLV advisors, Drs. Jef Jaeger and Brett Riddle, allowed us to do it.
Without giving everything away, results from our project suggest that both species, although only distantly related, underwent similar biogeographic histories. The distributions of both species appear to have been severed by the ancient Amu Darya River. Our results were published in Zoology in the Middle East in January of 2012. With rare samples from such a historic and remote region, once soviet, now ‘independent’, but nonetheless extremely exotic, I feel lucky to have been a part of the project.
The paper can be found here.