Environment
4:51 pm
Mon March 10, 2014

Enter the World of West Virginia Crayfish Research

"And it was THIS BIG," says Barbicambarus cornutus (AKA: Bottlebrush Crayfish of Kentucky) of the human that caught him...
Credit Glynis Board / WVPublic

Crayfish are one of the most endangered animal groups in the country, but recently a scientist at West Liberty University discovered three new species--and says there may be more on the way. That's not a big surprise if you know Zachary Loughman. He's one of only nine crayfish biologists in the country and maybe the most enthusiastic.

“Any second of any day I will look for crayfish. Period," Loughman says.

He says Appalachia is the perfect place to research crayfish because it's such an ecologically diverse region.

“If you would have told me when I was here at West Liberty as a student that I would be naming new species of crayfish I would have looked at you like you were a crazy person,” Loughman says.

I recently spent a day with him and his team to learn all about the multi-colored, lobster-like creatures, and how West Virginians can keep them healthy.

New Species of Crayfish in West Virginia:

  1. Cambarus hatfieldi —named after the famous feuding Hatfield family because species is found in Mate Creek, the same creek on which the Hatfield’s homestead was built
  2. Cambarus theepiensis —the root word there theepi is the Shawnee word for “river” since the crayfish is found in a historically Shawnee territory throughout the Guyandotte River
  3. Cambarus smilax —‘smilax’ being the plant genus name for ‘Greenbrier,’ because this new species lives in the Greenbrier River

Zachary Loughman, has been studying crayfish for about a decade. He says he chose crayfish because no one else really has.
Credit Glynis Board / WVPublic

A World Unknown

A lot about crayfish is shrouded in mystery, from simple things like, how long they live, to more complicated queries like, how they raise their young. Loughman says that makes the job very exciting—nothing but discoveries.

“We definitely found out that they aren’t little robots—they all kind of do their own thing,” Loughman says with a half-smile.

For all we don’t know about crayfish, we DO know that they are the 3rd most endangered animal group in the country. Two of the major threats are:

Today you can find more than 60 crawdads living in a variety of aquariums in Loughman’s West Liberty lab. And so, so many more pickled and cataloged. It’s crazy.
Credit Glynis Board / WVPublic

#1 Threat to Crayfish: Stream Sedimentation

Loughman says not finding crayfish in a stream is a pretty good indicator that something, or more likely someone has disturbed the ground in the watershed around the stream causing sediment to clog all the little spaces between the rocks where crayfish like to chill.

Loughman explains that while they are still working to discover all of the roles that crayfish play in stream ecology, one key role is creating avenues by which many other stream-dwellers move about.

“So when the crayfish go away," he says, "slowly but surely all of the creatures that depend on them fade out, too.”

Loughman says the Big Sandy Crayfish is an example of a species that needs protection now, or it might face extinction:

Big Sandy Crayfish (Cambarus veteranus) In the late 80s, it was known from seventeen streams throughout the southern coalfields. It is now only known from three streams.
Credit Glynis Board / WVPublic

#2 Threat to Crayfish: Invasion

“All it takes [to introduce devastating effects of invasive species]—it’s been proven in other states—is one person repeatedly bringing crayfish from one stream to another stream,” Loughman says.

He explains that crayfish have developed home-turfs over a millennia, and it's easy to disrupt those ecosystems and throw everything out of whack. Invasive species hijacking steam systems is resulting in big problems for everything from insects to the human fishing industry. Especially in Europe.

URGENT MESSAGE FROM LOUGHMAN TO FISHING FOLKS:
“If you’re fishing in Wheeling Creek, get your bait from Wheeling Creek. Don’t get your bait from Wheeling Creek and then drive over to the Potomac River and use that bait,” Loughman says.

He says when folks use crayfish as bait, it’s really really important to the ecology of the stream for them NOT TO drop their living leftover crawdads into a stream if the crayfish came from somewhere else. Apparently, it’s a pretty competitive world in crawdad land and we can really mess up the balance of power by flinging crayfish about.

Please tell all your fishing friends. Seriously. Thanks.

North America Invades Europe

Quick fact: West Virginia has 30 species of Crayfish that we know of, so far. Europe has 8 or 9.

Someone up and popped some North American crayfish all covered in fungus, into some European streams. That’s really bad news because that fungus is deadly to native European crayfish.

“As these native European crayfish are wiped out, our guys take over and North American crayfish behave a little differently than European crayfish—they dig a lot more. So you end up with stream bank failure, a loss of diversity, it’s having economical impacts."

Loughman says there are a BUNCH of crayfish biologists in Europe now, because the invasion is so problematic and ultimately wrecking economic and environmental havoc. But his efforts remain in Appalachia, where he has plenty to keep him busy:

“If you go to places like Mon National Forest to collect crayfish, I’m a very happy guy and everything is wonderful. If I drop down onto the plateau near any of our big cities—Wheeling, Parkersburg, Clarksburg, Huntington, Charleston—then I start to get a little bit sad, because the crayfish numbers are down and there are sedimentation issues everywhere.”

Blue Crayfish (Cambarus monongalensis) Crayfish come in all colors and sizes!
Credit Glynis Board / WVPublic