Genetic and morphological analyses indicate that the Australian endemic scorpion Urodacus yaschenkoi (Scorpiones: Urodacidae) is a species complex

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Note that a Preprint of this article also exists, first published October 20, 2016.


Scorpions represent an ancient arthropod lineage that first appeared in the Silurian, and fossil records indicate their bodyplan remained largely unchanged since the Paleozoic period (Dunlop, 2010; Jeram, 1997; Kjellesvig-Waering, 1986). Given this relative morphological stasis over long periods of time, the placement of scorpions within Arachnida and internal evolutionary relationships inferred solely from morphological characters have long been contentious (Prendini & Wheeler, 2005; Sharma et al., 2014; Shultz, 2007; Soleglad & Fet, 2003). A recent phylogenomic study based on the transcriptome-wide variation suggested non-monophyly of all scorpion superfamilies and several families, largely contradicting the traditional morphology-based hypotheses (Sharma et al., 2015).

The well-supported phylogenetic reconstructions and taxonomy of scorpions are critical for their effective conservation. Scorpion populations can be sensitive to environmental changes due to a low reproductive rate (long generation time, long gestation time, small litter size) and high mortality of immature females (Fet, Polis & Sissom, 1998; Lourenço & Cuellar, 1995). Several species have gained threatened status due to over-harvesting for the souvenir and exotic pet trades (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, 2014, Scorpions might also become more harvested for their venom that is increasingly regarded as a source of new therapeutic and insecticidal agents (Gurevitz et al., 2007; Possani et al., 2000; Rodríguez de la Vega, Schwartz & Possani, 2010). An extensive venom characterization can be found for individual taxa (e.g., Luna-Ramírez et al., 2013; Xu et al., 2014), but a deeper understanding of the evolution of scorpion venoms and their molecular characteristics has been limited by the lack of underlying species tree (Sharma et al., 2015).

Extant scorpions inhabit a diversity of terrestrial habitats across all continents except Antarctica, with the greatest species diversity found in tropical and subtropical regions of the world (Lourenço, 2001; Prendini, 2010). Australian scorpions have received far less attention from researchers than their overseas counterparts. Over 40 scorpion species described in Australia are traditionally organized into four families: Buthidae, Bothriuridae, Urodacidae and Hormuridae (Koch, 1977; Monod & Prendini, 2015; Volschenk, Mattoni & Prendini, 2008). The Urodacidae is an Australian endemic family found across the continent, except on the south-eastern seaboard. The family was first described by Koch (1977) that under the current classification includes two genera: Urodacus and the recently described troglobitic Aops (Volschenk & Prendini, 2008). The genus Urodacus contains 20 species described based on morphological characters (Volschenk, Harvey & Prendini, 2012), with many likely undescribed species.

Urodacus yaschenkoi (Birula, 1903), commonly known as the inland robust scorpion, occupies Australian desert habitats stretching from north-western Victoria through South Australia and across to Western Australia (Walker, Yen & Milledge, 2003) (Fig. 1). It is emerging as a model organism in toxinology because it produces large volumes of venom compared with other Urodacus species (Luna-Ramírez et al., 2013; Luna-Ramírez et al., 2014). This scorpion has had several synonyms throughout its taxonomic history, starting from the original description as Hemihoplopus yaschenkoi (Birula, 1903), followed by Urodacus granifrons (Kraepelin, 1916), U. fossor (Kraepelin, 1916), and U. kraepelini (Glauert, 1963), and finally by U. yaschenkoi (Birula) (Koch, 1977). Since then, studies of variation in U. yashenkoi populations have not been conducted.

Urodacus yaschenkoi sampling locations across its distribution range (in dark yellow, adapted from Koch, 1977).

Figure 1: Urodacus yaschenkoi sampling locations across its distribution range (in dark yellow, adapted from Koch, 1977).

Numbers 1 to 5 designate individuals belonging to the sub-lineages (SC1-5) of the south-central major clade (SC); members of the central-western (CW) clade and western (W) clades are marked in green and red color, respectively. Different hypotheses about diversification in various Australian taxa (vicariance, refugia, dispersal corridors) are adapted from Melville et al. (2016), Pepper et al. (2011) and Rix et al. (2015).

Here we provide the first molecular analysis of phylogenetic patterns and history of U. yaschenkoi sampled across its native range. DNA sequence data from mitochondrial and nuclear loci, complemented with the analysis of several body-proportion characters, showed that U. yaschenkoi shares a complex diversification history with other Australian arid-adapted fauna. Moreover, the existence of several deeply divergent lineages that also differ in body-shape indicate that further revision of this taxon is warranted.

Table 1:
Urodacus yaschenkoi specimen location and analyses made.
List of Urodacus yaschenkoi collected from the field as live specimens (Field) or obtained from the Australian museum collections (South Australian Museum—SA, Western Australian Museum—WA). Geographic position (lat/log) and the geographic region details are reported for each sample. List of haplotypes (mito 28S) and GenBank Accession # scored in each individual. Morphological variation scored (✓), Museum ID.
Sample Source Latitude Longitude Geographic region Mito haplotype 28S haplotype GenBank (mito/28S) Morpho Museum ID/Reg.No.
BKA11 Field −33.2283 141.3011 NSW 20 1 KP176775/ KP176743 NA
BKA12 Field −33.2283 141.3011 NSW 20 2 KP176775/ KP176744 NA
BKB08 Field −33.2199 141.3089 NSW 20 1 NA
BKB12 Field −33.2242 141.3061 NSW 20 1 KP176775/ KP176743 NA
BK13 Field −33.2283 141.3011 NSW 20 1 NA
MARR1 Field −26.3400 133.2000 SA 28 3 KP176783/ KP176745 NA
MARR2 Field −26.3400 133.2000 SA 28 3 KP176783/ KP176745 NA
PIM1 Field −31.2509 136.5089 SA 1 4 KP176756/ KP176746 NA
PIM2 Field −31.2509 136.5089 SA 1 5 KP176756/ KP176747 NA
PIM5 Field −31.2509 136.5089 SA 1 4 KP176756/ KP176746 NA
PIM6 Field −31.2509 136.5089 SA 1 1 KP176756/ KP176743 NA
PIM8 Field −31.2509 136.5089 SA 1 1 KP176756/ KP176743 NA
POP1 Field −33.0710 141.6372 NSW 20 1 KP176775/ KP176743 NA
POP4 Field −33.0710 141.6372 NSW 20 KP176775 NA
POP5 Field −33.0710 141.6372 NSW 20 KP176775 NA
SAM1397 SAM −30.7667 138.1767 SA 2 KP176757 NS1397
SAM1399 SAM −27.1192 132.8300 SA 6 KP176761 NS1399
SAM1400 SAM −27.1191 132.8300 SA 6 KP176761 NS1400
SAM1403 SAM −26.6453 132.8858 SA 4 KP176759 NS1403
SAM1406 SAM −31.2878 136.5831 SA 1 KP176756 NS1406
SAM1412 SAM −26.2747 137.3269 SA 20 KP176775 NS1412
SAM1415 SAM −33.8555 140.5361 SA 20 KP176775 NS1415
SAM1416 SAM −34.0583 140.1500 SA 20 KP176775 NS1416
SAM1606 SAM −26.6922 134.1722 SA 23 KP176778 NS1606
SAM1607 SAM −26.5767 137.1933 SA 22 KP176777 NS1607
SAM1812 SAM −33.3267 137.0931 SA 15 KP176770 NS1812
SAM1823 SAM −33.7511 140.2747 SA 20 KP176775 NS1823
SAM1825 SAM −33.7230 140.1238 SA 20 KP176775 NS1825
SAM1831 SAM −33.7183 139.9300 SA 20 KP176775 NS1831
SAM1834 SAM −33.7236 139.0438 SA 20 KP176775 NS1834
SAM1835 SAM −33.7236 139.0438 SA 21 KP176776 NS1835
SAM1837 SAM −33.7400 139.0816 SA 20 KP176775 NS1837
SAM1917 SAM −32.6244 135.0322 SA 24 KP176779 NS1917
SAM1939 SAM −33.1233 136.0214 SA 3 KP176758 NS1939
SAM2038 SAM −33.1167 136.0000 SA 3 KP176758 NS2038
SAM2053 SAM −24.4036 132.8886 NT 14 KP176769 NS2053
SAM2054 SAM −28.4627 129.0102 SA 5 KP176760 NS2054
SAM2055 SAM −28.4627 129.0102 SA 5 KP176770 NS2055
SAM2056 SAM −28.4627 129.0102 SA 10 KP176765 NS2056
SAM2060 SAM −28.4977 129.3205 SA 11 KP176766 NS2060
SAM2061 SAM −28.4977 129.3205 SA 11 KP176766 NS2061
SAM2062 SAM −24.5060 129.2619 NT 9 KP176764 NS2062
SAM2067 SAM −32.0033 135.6558 SA 3 KP176758 NS2067
SAM2070 SAM −28.8969 132.7575 SA 12 KP176767 NS2070
SAM2071 SAM −28.8969 132.7575 SA 13 KP176768 NS2071
SAM2073 SAM −28.5319 131.6903 SA 19 KP176774 NS2073
SAM2076 SAM −29.7706 131.1081 SA 18 KP176773 NS2076
SAM2120 SAM −31.9972 140.0644 SA 20 KP176775 NS2120
SAM2125 SAM −29.1286 135.6997 SA 25 KP176780 NS2125
SAM2126 SAM −29.1286 135.6997 SA 20 KP176775 NS2126
SAM2133 SAM −32.4947 135.3644 SA 7 KP176762 NS2133
SAM2140 SAM −29.4053 132.8556 SA 26 KP176781 NS2140
WAM20 WAM −27.4867 122.3119 WA 31 7 KP176786/ KP176749 85020
WAM31 WAM −27.4867 122.3119 WA 31 8 KP176786/ KP176750 85031
WAM32 WAM −27.4867 122.3119 WA 30 8 KP176785/ KP176750 85032
WAM36 WAM −27.3893 115.1847 WA 29 9 KP176784/ KP176751 78236
WAM37 WAM −27.6145 121.9947 WA 17 10 KP176772/ KP176752 112637
WAM38 WAM −26.4408 115.3661 WA 29 9 KP176784/ KP176751 78238
WAM46 WAM −28.7333 123.8667 WA 16 11 KP176771/ KP176753 80246
WAM55 WAM −27.4867 122.3119 WA 31 7 KP176786/ KP176749 83855
WAM56 WAM −27.4867 122.3119 WA 30 7 KP176785/ KP176749 83856
WAM75 WAM −27.4867 122.3119 WA 31 12 KP176786/ KP176754 83875
WAM88 WAM −25.9307 128.4526 WA 8 13 KP176763/ KP176755 95988
Um1814 SAM −33.1997 138.2189 SA NA NA NS0001814
Um2714 SAM −33.1997 138.2189 SA NA NA NS0002714
Un2112 SAM −31.6597 129.1083 SA NA NA NS0002112
DOI: 10.7717/peerj.2759/table-1



New South Wales


South Australia


Western Australia


Northern Territory


Not applicable

Materials and Methods

Biological material

Samples of Urodacus yaschenkoi were obtained from field and museum collections (Table 1). Live specimens were collected from eight locations (approximately 500 m2) in the semi-arid and arid regions of Central Australia in December 2010 and October 2011 (Table 1 and Fig. 1). Individuals were collected at night from pitfall traps set in front of their burrows, and those outside their burrows were detected using ultraviolet (UV) lamps that reveal soluble fluorescent components (β-carboniles) in the scorpion exoskeleton (Stachel, Stockwell & Van Vranken, 1999). Captured scorpions were kept alive and transported to the laboratory for morphological identification according to Koch (1977). Key diagnostic feature that distinguishes U. yaschenkoi from other Urodacus species is a very small terminal prolateral tarsus unguis. All specimens were handled according to good animal practices defined by the Government of Australia, and all institutions and museums involved approved the animal handling work. Scorpions were anaesthetized by cooling in a refrigerator (4 °C) for 5 min before removing ∼1 mm2 of leg muscle tissue, which was stored in 90% ethanol at 4 °C or −20 °C for subsequent DNA extraction. Additional samples were obtained from collections at the South Australian Museum (SAM) and Western Australian Museum (WAM) containing specimens collected between 2000 and 2010 (Table 1).

DNA extraction, amplification and sequencing

Total DNA was extracted from the stored muscle tissue using the DNeasy Blood and Tissue Kit (Qiagen, Venlo, Netherlands) following the manufacturer’s instructions. Two mitochondrial loci (cytochrome oxidase subunit I, COXI; large ribosomal subunit, 16S) and a single nuclear locus (28S) were amplified by PCR with a reaction volume of 20 µl containing 0.5 ng of template DNA, 10 µl of Go Taq Master Mix (Promega, Madison, Wisconsin, USA), 0.5 µl of 10 nM primers and 7 µl of RNase-free water (Qiagen). The primer sequences and PCR amplicon sizes are summarized in Table 2.

Primers previously designed for the insect COXI gene (Simon et al., 1994; Tanaka et al., 2001) were used to amplify a 630-base pair (bp) fragment from the 3′ end of the locus. The amplification conditions comprised an initial denaturing step at 95 °C for 5 min followed by 35 cycles of denaturing at 94 °C for 30 s, annealing at 52 °C for 40 s, and extension at 72 °C for 45 s, and a final extension phase at 72 °C for 5 min. For the mitochondrial 16S gene, the scorpion-specific primer pairs modified by Gantenbein et al. (2005) were used to amplify a 425-bp region at the 3′ end of the locus. The amplification conditions comprised an initial denaturing step at 94 °C for 4 min followed by 30 cycles of denaturing at 94 °C for 30 s, annealing at 47.5 °C for 30 s, and extension at 72 °C for 30 s, and a final extension phase at 72 °C for 7 min. The COXI and 16S gene fragments were also amplified from three specimens keyed out as Urodacus manicatus (Um2714, Um1814) and U. novaehollandiae (Un2112, Table 1). Sequences from these taxa were used as outgroups in downstream phylogenetic reconstruction. Primer pairs R1S and R1AS, and R2S and R2AS, designed by Arabi et al. (2012), were used to amplify 1,158-bp and 1,246-bp fragments of the 28S locus, respectively. Each set of primers amplifies a different region of the gene, which overlaps by 327 bp, and their sequences were concatenated to form a larger product of 2,076 bp. The amplification conditions for both sets of primers comprised an initial denaturing step at 94 °C for 4 min, followed by 30 cycles of denaturing at 94 °C for 30 s, annealing at 55 °C for 30 s, and extension at 72 °C for 30 s, and a final extension phase at 72 °C for 7 min.

Museum specimens that were not stored under ideal conditions for preservation failed to yield COXI amplicons suitable for direct sequencing. To address this issue, additional PCR primers were designed to amplify smaller fragments for COXI locus (Table 2), resulting in amplicons of 150 bp that were used for subsequent analysis. For the SAM specimens, the amplification of the 28S nuclear gene failed entirely and these samples were excluded from further analysis of the nuclear gene variation. All amplicons were sequenced in both directions using the PCR amplification primers, and carried out on an Applied Biosystems 3130 genetic analyzer by Macrogen Inc. (Seoul, South Korea).

Table 2:
Primer and amplicon details.
List of primer sequences and corresponding amplicons sizes for the three Urodacus yaschenkoi loci (COXI, 16S rRNA, 28S rRNA).
Marker Primer Primer sequence Size (bp) Reference
COXI F C1-J-2183 5′-CAACATTTATTTTGATTTTTTGG - 3′ 550–630 Simon et al. (1994)
16S F 16SF 5′- AACAAAACCCACAGCTCACA- 3′ 422 Gantenbein et al. (2005)
28S R1 F R1S (5′-ACCCGCTGAATTTAAGCAT-3′), R R1AS (5′- GCTATCCTGAGGGAAACTTC-3′) 1,158 Arabi et al. (2012)
DOI: 10.7717/peerj.2759/table-2

Sequences were aligned and edited in Geneious Pro v6.1 (Biomatters Ltd.) using the MUSCLE alignment option with default parameters. All chromatograms were checked for the presence of multiple peaks (which indicate heterozygosity), and authenticity of the COX1 coding gene was validated by checking for indels and premature stop codons. After this editing process, the alignment of the mitochondrial gene fragments yielded 616-bp and 396-bp products for the COX1 and 16S genes respectively, and the final 28S alignment was 2,076 bp in length. The final dataset contained 68 sequences for each of the mitochondrial genes and 27 sequences for the 28S locus (Table 1, (GenBank accession # KP176717KP176786)). Shared haplotypes were identified and the uncorrected pairwise genetic distances (%) were calculated using Geneious Pro v6.1 (Biomatters Ltd.). This simple distance measure was implemented to achieve reliable estimates of both intraspecific and interspecific genetic variation.

Phylogenetic analysis

Phylogenetic reconstructions and divergence dates among lineages were calculated using unique haplotypes and Bayesian Inference (BI) methods implemented in BEAST v2.1.3 (Bouckaert et al., 2014). We used jModeltest v0.1.1 (Posada, 2008) to select the best-fit model of evolution, based on Akaike Information Criteria (AIC) (Akaike & Company, 1981) for each of the mitochondrial and nuclear genes (GTR + G in each case). Mitochondrial loci were combined for analysis due to their similar modes of evolution (GTR + R), as indicated by the incongruence-length difference (ILD) tests (Farris et al., 1995) implemented in PAUP_4.0b10 (Swofford, 2002). The nuclear gene (28S) was analyzed independently due to inconsistencies in taxon sampling (Table 1).

Operators were auto-optimized, and five independent Markov Chain Monte Carlo (MCMC) runs were performed using a Yule (speciation) tree-prior, each running for 5 ×106 generations, sampling every 10,000 states. Log files were examined with Tracer v1.5 (Rambaut et al., 2014) to ensure that runs were sampling from the same posterior distribution, to determine appropriate burn-in, and to ensure that effective sample sizes (ESSs) of parameters of interest were greater than 1,000. Tree files of independent runs were then combined using LogCombiner v2.1.3 (Drummond et al., 2012), discarding the first 20% and re-sampling at a lower frequency of 15,000. The maximum clade credibility (MCC) tree was recovered from a sample of 10,000 posterior trees, and branch support was annotated using TreeAnnotator v2.1.3 (Drummond et al., 2012). Each analysis started with a random starting tree and seed with no root specified. Sequence data from species of the same genus (U. manicatus and U. novaehollandiae) were used to estimate the root of the mitochondrial gene tree.

Additional phylogenetic constructions were also performed using a truncated COXI alignment to test the influence of missing data on the final tree topology. Because numerous museum collections yielded short COXI gene products, we trimmed the alignment to 150-bp to exclude regions of the alignment with high levels of missing data. This exercise demonstrated that the inclusion/exclusion of missing data had little influence on the phylogenetic reconstructions. Consequently, all results presented from this point reflect those from the non-truncated COX1 alignment.

Species delineation based on molecular data

We implemented two DNA taxonomy approaches to evaluate the presence of cryptic species. First, the general mixed Yule coalescent (GMYC) approach (Fujisawa & Barraclough, 2013; Pons et al., 2006) was applied to an ultrametric tree (produced using BEAST) in R Development Core Team (2008) with the Splits package ( The GMYC model is a process-based approach that detects the threshold in a gene tree at which within-species processes (i.e., coalescence) shift to between-species processes (i.e., speciation and extinction). Second, we combined the Poisson Tree Processes model for species delimitation (PTP) and a Bayesian implementation of PTP (bPTP) to infer putative species boundaries on a given phylogenetic input tree (Zhang et al., 2013). The PTP/bPTP model, unlike the GMYC model, requires a bifurcated phylogenetic tree rather than an ultrametric tree. PTP/dPTP models speciation or branching events in terms of the number of substitutions. The following parameters were used: MCMC, 500,000 generations; thinning, 100; burn-in, 0.1; seed, 123, and assessed convergence in each case to ensure the reliability of the results.

Delineation based on the analyses of morphological measurements

Proportions of several characters that approximate body shape were assessed in 39 female adult specimens that were keyed out as U. yaschenkoi (according to Koch, 1977) and were collected at 26 locations (Table 1, Fig. 1). Gender was determined by examining the genital opercula of adult scorpions, with males having a small finger-like projection known as the genital papilla. Because our collection contained only three males, the analyses were done only with females.

The following traits were measured under a microscope using an ocular ruler with 1-mm precision: carapace length (CL), metasoma segment V length (MVL), telson length (SL), pedipalp length (PL), chela length (ChL), pecten length (PecL) and pecten width (PecW). Ratios of traits (e.g., CL/MVL, SL/PL etc.) gave in total 21 variables scored in each individual (Supplemental File 4). These variables were treated as predictors in the Linear Discriminant Analysis (LDA) implemented in the R package “MASS” (Venables & Ripley, 2002). LDA was used to test whether the linear combination of 21 variables (ratios of morphological measurements) can predict individual’s membership to a mitochondrial lineage (putative species). Strong predictive power of morphological variation on the observed molecular divergence would provide additional support for a species complex in U. yaschenkoi.

Divergence time estimation

The mitochondrial gene tree was time calibrated with divergence times of nodes inferred from 95% highest posterior density (HPD) intervals. Scorpion-specific mutation rates of 0.007 substitutions/site/million years for COXI and 0.005 substitutions/site/million years for 16S (Gantenbein et al., 2005; Gantenbein & Largiadèr, 2003) were used to calibrate the tree. These estimates are derived from buthid scorpions and have been used to estimate divergence times among various scorpion lineages including non-buthid taxa (Bryson et al., 2013a; Bryson et al., 2013b; Graham, Oláh-Hemmings & Fet, 2012). Substitution rates were set in BEAUti v1.7.3 (Drummond et al., 2012) using relaxed clock log normal priors. Tracer was then used to obtain parameter estimates for time to most recent common ancestor (tMRCAs) for nodes within the gene tree.


We identified 31 unique mitochondrial haplotypes with uncorrected distances between haplotypes ranging from 0.3–7.6% (mean ± standard deviation = 3.0% ± 0.4%) and distances from the outgroup taxa of 8.4–10.2% (mean ± standard deviation = 9.4% ± 1.4%) (Supplemental File 1). A total of 13 nuclear 28S haplotypes were identified with uncorrected p-distances of 0.1–0.5% (mean ± standard deviation = 0.2% ± 0.1%) (Supplemental File 2). A list of haplotypes for sample locations is provided in Supplemental File 3.

Phylogenetic analysis

Mitochondrial markers

Bayesian inference analysis of the mitochondrial dataset identified several genetically divergent lineages (three major lineages represented as black, red and green clades in Fig. 2), with strong statistical support for their respective monophyly (posterior probability > 0.95). Sublineages within the black clade are broadly distributed across Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia, whereas the red and green clades are restricted to Western Australia (Fig. 1). From this point forward we will refer to the black, red and green clades as the south-central (SC), western (W) and central-western (CW) lineages, respectively.

Dated phylogeny (Bayesian tree) for Urodacus yaschenkoi based on the concatenated COXI and 16S partial sequences.
Figure 2: Dated phylogeny (Bayesian tree) for Urodacus yaschenkoi based on the concatenated COXI and 16S partial sequences.
Putative species inferred with the PTP/bPTP approach are marked as SC1-5, CW and W. The 95% CI for each divergence time is shown in blue.

Mean uncorrected pairwise genetic distances between the three major lineages (SC, CW and W) ranged from 6.4 to 6.9% (overall mean ± standard deviation = 6.6% ± 0.9%). The mean sub-lineage distances ranged from 2.2% ± 0.4% and 0.8% ± 0.2%, respectively (not calculated for the W lineage due to only a single recorded haplotype). Mean uncorrected distances between the three major lineages and the outgroups ranged from 9.3 to 10.3% (mean ± standard deviation = 9.4% ±  1.4%).

Nuclear marker

Despite low level of variation in the 28S dataset, Bayesian analysis produced a nuclear gene topology that was largely concordant with the mitochondrial gene tree. Three genetically divergent clades were identified, corresponding to those from the mitochondrial dataset (SC, CW and W, Fig. 3). In each case, strong statistical support for the monophyly of each clade was found (posterior probability >  0.95). The unresolved interrelationships among lineages within each clade in the nuclear gene tree prevented any reliable inferences of phylogeographic patterns.

Bayesian unrooted tree for Urodacus yaschenkoi based on the 28S partial sequences.
Figure 3: Bayesian unrooted tree for Urodacus yaschenkoi based on the 28S partial sequences.

Molecular-based species delineation

Among the 31 unique mitochondrial haplotypes described above, the GMYC model identified nine entities and the PTP/bPTP approach identified seven, each representing putative species (Table 3). The assignment of haplotypes to putative species groups is shown in Fig. 2, where conspecifics share a common number. Species assignments were highly consistent when comparing each of the methods, but we presented the PTP/bPTP results as they are more accurate when the evolutionary distances between lineages are small (Zhang et al., 2013). In summary, SC, W and CW clades were recognized as putative species groups, as were the sub-lineages within the SC ancestral grouping (SC-1 to 5, Fig. 2).

Table 3:
Molecular species delineation analyses.
Species delineation analyses in Urodacus yaschenkoi based on 31 unique mitochondrial haplotypes.
Analysis type # Entities Statistics
GMYC 9 Likelihood null model: 32.7519; likelihood best model: 33.36569; likelihood ratio: 1.2255; P-value, 0.0001, confidence interval: 1–10
PTP/bPTP (ML and BL) 7 Acceptance rate: 0.50975; merge: 49,942; split: 50,058
DOI: 10.7717/peerj.2759/table-3

Discriminant power of morphological variation

None of the U. yaschenkoi specimens that were characterized at 21 morphological ratio variables were assigned to the W mitochondrial clade, hence the LDA was done on 39 females assigned to the SC and the CW clades. Individuals were categorized into four groups (putative species) based on the results of the PTP/bPTP molecular species delineation analysis: 18 females from SC-1, 12 from SC-3, three from the SC-4, and six from the CW clade (Fig. 2). Because our dataset contained four groups, we could find a maximum of three discriminant functions that separate these groups.

The first discriminant function (LD1) achieved 93.7% of the separation, reflecting the morphological distinction of the CW clade from the SC clade (Fig. 4). Further separation of the three putative groups within the SC clade was weak (LD2-3, Fig. 4). We then grouped samples into two putative species (CW and SC clade) and tested the accuracy of prediction using 100 jackknife resampling steps. The grouping into two molecular clades based on morphological variation was 100% accurate (33/33) for the SC clade and 83.3% accurate (5/6) for the CW clade. Therefore, our results indicate strong predictive power of body proportion variation on the observed molecular divergence, and suggest the existence of at least two distinct taxa within U. yaschenkoi.

LDA for body proportions.

Figure 4: LDA for body proportions.

Individual scores for the first 3 axes of Linear Discriminant Analysis. 21 body-proportions were measure in Urodacus yaschenkoi adult females. Numbers (1, 3, 4) denote individuals belonging to one of the SC sublineages (SC1, 3, 4), and CW denotes individuals from the CW clade.

The most discriminating uncorrelated proportions were of the telson and chela length (SL/ChL) and pedipalp and pecten length (PL/PecL). Overall, members of the CW clade tend to have disproportionately shortened chela and enlarged pecten when compared to the members of the SC clade.

Divergence dating

Our time calibrated mitochondrial phylogeny suggested that the split between the major U. yaschenkoi clades (SC, CW and W lineages) occurred during the late Miocene/early Pliocene (4–7 MYA) (Fig. 2). Lineage diversifications within SC appear to have occurred during the Pliocene and early Pleistocene (1.8–4 MYA), while finer-scale phylogeographic patterning within the sub-lineages arose during the late Pleistocene (<1 Mya). Divergence time estimates should be interpreted with some caution, as the nucleotide substitution rate was derived from a different scorpion family (Buthidae) and there are large errors margins around 95% HPD estimates.

Biogeographic patterns

The SC lineage showed substantial geographic structure. The most divergent sub-lineage (SC-5) was found in Western Australia in sympatry with the CW lineage (Fig. 1). SC-1 was found west of the Central Ranges, through to the Eyre Peninsula in South Australia, while SC-3 had a distribution extending from the Central to Mt Lofty Ranges in South Australia, and across to north-western Victoria. SC-4 had a narrow north-south distribution in the central inland and coastal regions of South Australia (Fig. 1).


Our analyses reveal strong genetic and morphological diversification in U. yaschenkoi across its range, pointing to the existence of a species complex with at least three putative species High statistical support for the monophyly and the extent of genetic divergence between the main three lineages (6.4–6.9%) exceeds estimates of interspecific divergence previously reported for other scorpion and arthropod groups (Bryson et al., 2014; Tourinho, Sole-Cava & Lazoski, 2012; Wysocka et al., 2011). DNA-based species delineation approaches (GMYC and bPTP) provided significant statistical support for the recognition of the three lineages (SC, CW, W) as distinct species, and potential further cryptic speciation within the south-central clade (SC1-5, Fig. 2).

We also demonstrated a strong association between this molecular divergence and morphological variation. Namely, ratios of several traits that approximate body shape had a strong predictive power (83–100%) in discriminating two major molecular clades (CW and SC). The two clades differ most notably in proportions involving chela and pecten. Because of their great variation in shape, scorpion chalae have been used as one of the key characters to delineate different ecomorphotypes (Van der Meijden, Kleinteich & Coelho, 2012). Until now U. yaschenkoi has been distinguished from other congeneric species by its much smaller terminal prolateral tarsal ungues and by the production of large amounts of venom (Koch, 1977). Based on our results from a limited sample size, detailed analyses of morphological variation in U. yaschekoi are warranted.

Our time-calibrated phylogeny suggests that the split between the CW, W and SC clades occurred during the mid-Miocene to early Pliocene (approximately 5–9 Mya). This geological time was marked by a shift to a much drier climate, the significant contraction of rainforests and the expansion of arid habitats (Martin, 2006). Further diversification within the major ancestral U. yaschenkoi lineages appears to have occurred throughout the Pliocene (3–5 Mya), which was a consistently dry period. This is followed by further lineage divergence during the mid and late Pleistocene when the climate was highly dynamic (<1 Mya), with wetter and drier episodes corresponding to interglacial and glacial cycles (McLaren & Wallace, 2010).

The spatio-temporal dynamics of diversification observed in U. yaschenkoi parallels those reported in other Australian arid biota. Reviewing tens of dated phylogenies of the south-western Australian terrestrial fauna, including arthropods like crayfish and spiders, Rix et al. (2015) found a compelling commonality in the basal east–west lineage diversification during the first half Miocene (until 10 Mya). The more xeric taxa currently occupying semi-arid and arid zones seemed to have experienced this divergence in late Miocene (6–10 Mya) (Rix et al., 2015), which we also inferred in the desert scorpion U. yaschenkoi (Fig. 2). A strong genetic and morphological divergence between the U. yaschenkoi lineages from the western (CW, W) and south-central (SC) Australia could be partly explained by the Miocene east–west vicariance hypothesis (Rix et al., 2015) (Fig. 1). After a longer period of range contraction, arid-adapted taxa such as U. yaschenkoi likely underwent significant range expansions during the Pliocene. Separation of SC-5 from other SC sub-lineages was estimated to have occurred during this time (Fig. 2), with SC-5 moving easterly. This sub-lineage is now sympatric with the CW clade (Fig. 1), suggesting their secondary contact. Further diversification within the SC clade (SC1-4) coincides with transition to the Pleistocene severe glacial cycles and expansion of the Australian deserts during the last 1 My (beginning of the “dusty world”, Rix et al., 2015). Like theBynoe’s gecko (Fujita et al., 2010) and lizards (Dubey & Shine, 2010; Pepper et al., 2011), U. yaschenkoi is another arid-adapted Australian taxon whose diversification and distribution were profoundly affected by the opening of desert biomes during this hyper-arid, unstable climatic history. Teasing out the relative importance of vicariance, putative refugia (e.g., Pilbara, Kimberley, central Ranges, (Pepper, Doughty & Keogh, 2013), or dispersal (Melville et al., 2016) (Fig. 1) in shaping this diversity would require extensive sampling, particularly at the western and northern parts of U. yaschenkoi distribution.

Revising the U. yaschenkoi taxonomy—future directions

Our results provide solid baseline data on the historical and spatial extent of diversification in U. yaschenkoi and offer some guidelines for future integrative taxonomic approaches in delimiting species within this taxon. We found an agreement among disciplines (morphology, nuclear and mitochondrial genetic information) during a primary exploration, which strengthens the argument for a taxonomic revision (Pante, Schoelinck & Puillandre, 2014; Schlick-Steiner et al., 2009). Congruent morphological and molecular phylogenetic signals are particularly compelling for a scorpion taxon, given that this is not the case in many scorpion lineages (Sharma et al., 2015).

The level of mitochondrial sequence divergence observed between U. yaschenkoi lineages satisfy the requirements for species delineation based on the principles of the phylogenetic species concept (De Queiroz, 2007; Wheeler, 1999), The three major lineages (SC, CW, W) can be considered the putative species. Because genetic ‘yardstick’ approaches provide crude taxonomic measures and nucleotide substitution rates often vary considerably between taxonomic groups, some caution is needed when considering findings of these analyses alone. Additional DNA-based species delineation approaches (GMYC and bPTP) indicated extensive cryptic speciation in U. yaschenkoi (Fig. 2). The GMYC method has been criticized for over-splitting species with a pronounced genetic structure (Satler, Carstens & Hedin, 2013), yet several recent studies have shown that it is highly robust (Fujisawa & Barraclough, 2013; Talavera et al., 2013) The obvious next step is to characterize the nuclear genome-wide variation in U. yaschenkoi sampled extensively within the “type” locality (28°35′S, 138°33′E), as well as western and northern parts of the distribution. We certainly advise against a pool-sequencing phylogenomic approach (e.g., samples from the same location are pooled to achieve cost-efficiency), given that the putative species have been found in sympatry.

The proportions of various morphological characters are routinely used in species descriptions or identification keys, particularly for arthropods where morphologically similar species often differ significantly in body proportions but not in qualitative characters (Baur & Leuenberger, 2011). Arguably, the results of multivariate analyses summarizing the overall body shape differences between groups are not easily interpreted. Yet, our initial results suggest that further analyses of e.g., chela shape might reveal more easily quantifiable diagnostic characters for U. yaschenkoi. Several parameters of chala shape were found to be correlated with the amount of strain stress they can withstand. Specifically, slender chela morphologies may be less suitable for high-force functions such as burrowing and defence (Van der Meijden, Kleinteich & Coelho, 2012). Given that U. yaschekoi putative species (SC and CW) show marked shape differences involving chela, further exploration of burrowing behavior or pray preference might provide additional characters to describe the U. yaschenkoi species complex.

Finally, it is important to note that we cannot exclude the possibility that some of the cryptic lineages have already been described as species, and we are not able to compare our genetic data against other Urodacus sequences as none published at the time of our study. Also, our sampling did not cover the exact “type” locality (28°35′S, 138°33′E). The samples closest to this area belong to the SC clade and likely represent the “type” lineage These data gaps would need to be addressed in further studies aiming to revise the taxonomy of the Australian desert scorpion U. yaschenkoi.


Our study provides the first insight into the molecular phylogeny of the endemic Australian scorpion Urodacus yaschenkoi. We show that this scorpion shares a complex diversification history with other Australian arid-adapted fauna. Concordance between the mitochondrial and nuclear data, along with the morphological variation, all suggest that U. yaschenkoi is a species complex that requires further taxonomic revision. Our findings highlight the importance of conserving populations from different Australian arid zones in order to preserve patterns of endemism and evolutionary potential.

Supplemental Information

The data sets supporting the results of this article are included within the article and its additional files in Supplemental Files

Supplemental File 1. Pairwise uncorrected p-distance between 31 unique U. yaschenkoi haplotypes and three outgroup haplotypes (U. novaehollandiae and two U. manicatus). Haplotypes were generated from the concatenated partial sequences of COXI and 16S loci. Supplemental File 2. Pairwise uncorrected p-distance between 13 unique U. yaschenkoi haplotypes generated from the partial 28S sequence. Supplemental File 3. List of haplotype numbers assigned to the U. yaschenkoi samples. Supplemental File 4. Measures (in mm) of seven morphological traits in 39 U. yaschenkoi adult females.

DOI: 10.7717/peerj.2759/supp-1
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