A Living Amber Scorpion

Last November I made a trip to south-eastern Arizona, specifically the Dragoon and Chiricahua Mountains, for the express purpose of finding invertebrates. Granted the timing was not fantastic and I had only about two full days of time to explore, but I was expectant of finding cool invertebrates nonetheless after the success of Michael Jacobi and Co. in the fall of 2019. While I did not find any Aphonopelma or Scolopendra heroes, I did discover one other reason why Arizona continues to draw invertebrate enthusiasts from around the world: the scorpions.

To be clear Arizona does not possess the incredible Kovarikia or Cataliniae my home state of California has, and so therefore one can only be so impressed (;D). But I will say that finding scorpions in Arizona in fall/winter is a lot easier to do than in California; all told I found 11 specimens in roughly two days of haphazard searching spread across 4 locales of 5 species. Comparing that to the fact that I have only ever seen 2-3 Superstionia donensis, Paravaejovis puritanus and confusum, and Smeringurus vachoni in California in the fall/winter after several years of searching, that is pretty good.
Anyway, one of these species I found in Arizona was Vaejovis electrum from Mt. Graham in the Pinaleño Mountains, a very unique vaejovid species that was only described in 2011. It lives under rocks in the forests at higher elevations (8000-9000+ feet) along the mountain side. My adventure in finding them was relatively typical; I arrived near the type locality and started flipping rocks, ha ha. They are decently common, as within the space of an hour I found five specimens, all within a relatively small area, though I only managed to catch four, the first escaping as I tried to photograph it in-situ. This species seemed to favor rocks (themselves often covered in lichens) that were set fairly deep into the ground near the roots of trees, though this could just be a sampling bias as for some reason most of the rocks were near the pine trees that dominate the forests at this altitude on Mt. Graham (or vice versa). It was interesting to note that this species does not seem to be communal, as specimens were only ever found individually, unlike, say, Vaejovis carolinianus which is often found in loose aggregations under the same log or board. I did only seem to find adults or large juveniles, which could have been due to the time of year, as I imagine in the wild this species does not breed like it would in the spring or summer when food is plentiful, though this is just speculation on my part.

Some of the rocks I found a specimen under, alongside my Concealed Carry Catch-Cup from Tarantula Canada.

I was disappointed to learn that “electrum” did not refer to the electric-appearance of this species, ha ha, rather meaning “amber” in Latin and referring to their amber coloration. I personally don’t really see much amber in my specimens, but it is apparently quite a variable species in terms of coloration, and on top of this I am red-green color deficient (partially color blind), which doesn’t help with seeing the subtle hues that so often comprise amber.

Anyway, after returning home with my prize I rehoused the specimens into 5.5 ounce deli cups on slightly-moist peat with some bark and oak leaves to hide under, essentially mirroring the habitat I found them in as much as I could (I did not have flat stones small enough for them, hence the bark). Unfortunately one of the smallest specimens died soon after this for reasons I am not fully sure of, leaving me with three scorpions. These seem pretty forgiving in terms of husbandry all the same, handling both dry and moist conditions well.

I don’t believe in collecting animals as trophies, and I collected these in the hopes of breeding them; three is not great for a breeding project, but there is still hope!

…At least, there was hope until I learned that the most reliable way to sex this species is through various measurements of the body (such as the width of the chelae), measured in millimeters, as noted in the original description of this species by Garret B. Hughes. Now, V. electrum is a very small, highly skittish species, so much so that even getting a pectinal tooth count, which is helpful for sexing other species, was going to be hard, so I highly doubt, even if I had such tiny calipers to take the necessary measurements on my specimens, I would be able to sex them (alive anyway). The count of the pectinal teeth can be helpful for V. electrum, as males have a mode count of 12 and females a mode count of 13, but that is a scarce difference with plenty of room for overlap and observer miscount (1).

I count 12 teeth for this specimen, meaning this could be a male.

Thus, I am not totally sure how to proceed. I do think I have three adult specimens, and I will try to count the pectines to at least get an idea of what the sex ratio might be, but otherwise it may come down to simply putting specimens together and keeping my tongs and tongue depressor handy. In the meantime I definitely plan on upgrading the three specimen’s enclosures to something bigger and more suited to an ecoscape similar to where I found them, and perhaps I will reach out to Richard F. Ayrey, who studied this species’s reproduction in his 2013 paper “Reproduction and Birth in the “Vorhiesi” Group of the Genus Vaejovis (Scorpiones: Vaejovidae). Part I. Clutch Size”, to see how he went about sexing the specimens he used for his study (2).

Anyway, it’s been an interesting experience finding this species in the wild, studying them in captivity, and learning about them further through the published literature. I definitely hope that a breeding project is still possible for my trio of specimens, and if so their good-sized clutch sizes definitely makes the further dissemination of this species to breeders a strong possibility (2). It seems, here in the USA anyway, that enthusiasts and breeders so often miss out on our own wonderful scorpion diversity amidst an emphasis on larger, perhaps more charismatic, exotic buthid species…even though electrum is way cooler of a name then bicolor.

Why not have both?

Till next time,



1. Hughes, G. B. (2011). Morphological analysis of montane scorpions of the genus Vaejovis (Scorpiones: Vaejovidae) in Arizona with revised diagnoses and description of a new species. The Journal of Arachnology39(3), 420–438. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23070789

(open-access here, from pages 420-438: https://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/page/53134399#page/57/mode/1up)

2. Ayrey, Richard. (2013). Reproduction and birth in the “vorhiesi” group of the genus Vaejovis (Scorpiones: Vaejovidae). Part I. Clutch size. Euscorpius. Euscorpius, 166:1-17. 10.18590/euscorpius.2013.vol2013.iss166.1.

Velvet Worms in Need of Some Help…

Hello all, one of the interesting things about my blog is that about 90% of the traffic to it, and more than that of comments, are coming for my posts on velvet worms, specifically the Epiperipatus barbadensis I helped import to the US. This is great, but today I want to talk about another species of velvet worm from New Zealand in need of some help.

Recently I attended the 2022 Myriapod Meet-Up hosted by Paul Marek and the Marek Lab of Virginia Tech University. This was essentially a mini-conference on the subject of myriapods (centipedes, millipedes, pauropods, symphalans, and the honorary myriapods, onychophorans, or velvet worms), bringing together about 70-80 professionals from all six inhabited continents(!) to present on and discuss various discoveries in the field, and dialogue on taxonomic and conservation issues. Unfortunately, while I missed the first two hours of the conference due to forgetting the time zone change (when someone in Virginia says 8:00 AM they mean 5:00 for the West Coast…), the rest of the time I was able to listen in as such giants of the field as Sergei Golovatch, Thomas Wesener, Paul Marek, Jackson Means, Carlos Martinez, Petra Sierwald, Sam McNally, Pavel Stoev, Peter Decker, and many others discussed all manner of subjects relating to myriapods. I learned a lot, made some good contacts, and it was a true pleasure to see how international and diverse in every which way the study of Myriapoda is.

But all this aside, one of the last presentations was made by David Randle, a conservationist from New Zealand who has been working in the city of Dunedin on the south island for over 40 years. As he related during the meet-up and afterwards in private conversations, he discovered a species of velvet worm in his back yard in 1990 that is believed to belong to not just a new species, but a new genus entirely by several onychophorologists including Dr. Hilke Ruhberg. Unfortunately, for various reasons, a proper description of the species, which would have to be included in a larger revision of New Zealand velvet worms, has not yet been undertaken, so this species remains under the common name Caversham Valley Peripatus.

Now, New Zealand velvet worms have often appealed to enthusiasts such as myself due to their incredible coloration, and this species from Dunedin is no exception!

An adult specimen of the currently undescribed Caversham Valley onychophorans. Photo by Dan Barrett.

Two of the incredible things about this species is that it is capable of colonizing disturbed areas near human habitation and roads, surviving and thriving even under rotting logs of introduced tree species, and that it is found in enormous densities in good habitat. Dave mentioned that when the New Zealand Transport Authority (NZTA) widened the Southern Scenic Route, shown below on the map, he removed over 10,000 specimens from the 40 meter (130 feet) strip of land alongside the road where the expansion would take place, and when he first discovered the species in his yard in 1990, he found a colony of over 2,000 specimens living under a brick pile! This is a far cry from the single-digit number of specimens so often found in Asia and South America even by experienced field researchers, and is a testament to the prolificness of this species. I can only imagine the population density of this species in a single hectare of quality habitat (old growth forest with lots of rotting logs from native tree species such as tree fuchsia, Fuchsia
, broadleaf, Griselinia littoralis, blue gum eucalyptus, and a thick layer of leaf litter).

On the subject of land, if one looks at a map of the Dunedin area, it is easy to see that almost the entire area has been developed, which naturally raises the question of where these velvet worms live in such a region, and unfortunately the facts of that part of the story are much grimmer. Near Dave’s house remains one of the last patches of old growth forest in Dunedin, and it is here that the Caversham Valley Peripatus cling to life. Originally 10 hectares (24.7 acres), the area has since been reduced to six (14.8 acres) by continued development, and is threatened to be shrunk even smaller by plans for a new sub-division right over the best habitat in those six hectares. Dave currently manages two hectares (4.9 acres) in the affected area, but it is obvious that if the available habitat is reduced from such a small area to that even smaller one, the probability of ecological and population collapse only grows.

The area inside the blue is known velvet worm habitat, and the area inside the yellow is the best habitat in the entire area. From what I understand, part of the area inside the yellow to the west and part of the area inside the blue to the north is what is going to be developed as a sub-division, and as you can see there is already a barren area outside the blue to the north where the forest has been razed. The forest itself is already surrounded by houses and major roads on all four sides.

Thankfully, velvet worms seem to be pretty resistant to genetic depression as shown through the continued viability of captive Epiperipatus barbadensis populations after four years, 5-10 generations, and thousands of specimens, all of which come from a starting population of about 30 individuals. However, for wild populations this is obviously not a preferable situation, and other creatures, such as a species of skink only found in the forest and grasslands of the area, will be wiped out due to habitat loss and population collapse if the sub-division is put in.
Old growth forest, which is what is being threatened in Dunedin, has proven to be important to not only invertebrate fauna but all sorts of other creatures, whether in the USA, Madagascar, or in this case New Zealand, and it is hugely disappointing that it is not appreciated even though such forests are incredibly valuable parts of ecological heritage. This was made even more poignant when Dave noted that the council of Dunedin is breaking New Zealand conservation laws and a conservation plan that was put into place by the prior council in order to get the sub-division built. A contract was signed by the current council with a construction company already, and since financial law is so often placed above conservation law, getting the contract overturned and the development stopped involves going to a High Court in New Zealand, which costs around $40,000 USD (the enforcers of the law are the ones breaking it in this situation). Discouraginly, this is something out of reach of the majority of conservationists, who are so often unfortunately one-man armies.

All this was related during the Myriapod Meet-Up, and Dave’s impassioned call for help really resonated me; he has been working to protect this area for 40 years and the velvet worms inside it for over 20, and his love for the environment and the animals directly speaks to my my Christian faith of properly stewarding the natural world. I also have a similar, if not quite as urgent situation, here in my home region of Southern California and more specifically the Mojave Desert, which has seen rapid development since the 1990s. Year after year I have watched as quite literally parts of my childhood are fenced off, graded with bulldozers, and destroyed, with armies of houses, warehouses, and shopping centers replacing priorly pristine desert. I recently discovered a rare species of tenebrionid in the genus Schizillus in an area that will probably all be houses in the next ten or so years; the memory of creatures like Aptostichus lucerne, and the possibility of there being other species like it that we will never know about, continues to bother me. I have even seen such iconic species as Joshua Trees, Yucca brevifolia, be illegally chainsawed and left to rot ahead of planned development.

Those who have not had emotional connections to parts of the natural world will not understand so easily the pain of what it’s like to see it destroyed, and so it is understandable why, by and large, the plight of the Caversham Valley Peripatus remains unknown in recent times in the midst of various other tragedies.
Even for conservationists in general, who have seen this cycle repeat itself over and again, it becomes hard to have empathy when it seems like there are so few victories over which to rejoice. And I feel that’s not only sad, but dangerous, as losing empathy before the work is finished desensitizes us to these struggles, and keeps up from really investing in the work. This desensitization almost is something I have had to guard myself against with regards to human disasters, and am now realizing that it is also something I need to guard against in relation to the natural world as well. I want to approach each of these situations, whether human or natural, as an opportunity to show the content of my character and grit of my spirit, and I hope those who care about these issues also resolve to do the same.
But that may be too grand to say for now, and in any case I am here to talk about velvet worms.

What can be done to help the Caversham Valley Peripatus/velvet worms/onychophorans, even in the midst of this seemingly hopeless situation?
First off, spread the word. If I could I would fly to New Zealand to show support to Dave in person, but barring that I want to encourage anyone reading this to share this with other invertebrate enthusiasts you may know. This also effects a species of skink that Dave mentioned is only found in the area that is being developed, so share it with reptile enthusiasts too if you know of any who would be interested. I am just one blogger in a corner of the internet, but together we can make a difference for good, and as the news spreads to others it will invariably become harder for the destruction of these velvet worms to be snuck by. It is only in silence that such things can happen; Edmund Burke said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing,” and this is true for abuses against both humanity and nature.

Second, reach out to Dave and let him know you care about his efforts. As I noted above, it can be discouraging when one is seemingly the only person fighting to protect a species or area, and by making connections between all us one-man armies we can encourage and strengthen each other, bearing one another’s troubles so to speak. I know the community of professional myriapod researchers is now aware of this issue, and if amateurs can come together with them to support Dave and his work to save these velvet worms, skinks, and their habitat that would be amazing.

You can reach Dave by email at dhrandle30 @ gmail.com, and again I encourage everyone to pass the information along to others. If you want to help in a way besides the two I list here, please send an email to Dave, as he is familiar with the situation and the velvet worms themselves.
Please do not message him to ask about acquiring specimens for personal collections or to ask about care information; while I am sure many of us would love to breed these velvet worms in captivity, the bigger concern here is making sure they are not lost from their native habitat, which is obviously the best place for them to be, and captive breeding programs would be a last-ditch effort for New Zealand conservationists and enthusiasts to attend to.

If you would like to learn more about these velvet worms and the current situation in New Zealand, please email me (see bottom of page), and I can send along some more photographs and documents that Dave has shared with me. There are so many more interesting aspects of these velvet worms I haven’t been able to fit in here, and even now I am stirred to go see them myself! If only international travel were a little easier in these days…

Share this image to help raise awareness about the plight of these velvet worms.

I hold onto the hope that through the raising of awareness, the sharing of information, and bringing together of many who care about these things, the Caversham Valley Peripatus can be saved.

“For we know that the whole of creation groans and travails together until now.”