On June 14, 2017, smartphones around the world buzzed with the arrival of a new video from the Brave Wilderness YouTube channel.
The 10-minute documentary carried a clickprovoking title: “NEW SPECIES FOUND?! Rare Blue Crayfish!” It opens with host Coyote Peterson hiking down a gravel road in Durbin, Pocahontas County, with herpetologist Tim Brust.
Brust, who completed his master’s degree at Marshall University, had been hired to serve as the Brave Wilderness team’s guide in West Virginia. The crew was initially interested in finding a hellbender, one of those giant salamanders that slither along in West Virginia’s streambeds. “Apparently what gets people excited on YouTube is something creepy, crawly, and colorful,” Brust says.
But the production crew couldn’t come to West Virginia for just one slimy salamander. Before they arrived, they asked Brust to find additional critters to film. After talking with some fellow biologists, he decided on cave salamanders and blue crayfish and began scouting spots for filming. That’s how he found that gravel road in Durbin. “I was trying to get them an easy access place so we could bring the cameras in,” he says.
It was also ideal because the road runs along the base of a hill with a muddy seep at the bottom. Unlike other crayfish, which live in moving water, blue crayfish live in burrows they dig in the muddy soil. Brust figured this road would be the perfect place to find crayfish but, when he visited the gravel road two weeks before filming, he didn’t have any luck. “I told them that was the one species I was worried about finding.”
Then came the day of the shoot. The video shows Peterson flipping two rocks over before digging his hand into the muddy ground and pulling out a crayfish, but that’s just a little television magic. “It took us about an hour and a half to find that one,” Brust says.
When they finally uncovered a blue crayfish, Peterson couldn’t have been happier. “I can’t believe it. It’s as blue as the sky is,” he remarks to the camera. Brust says that disbelief was genuine—the crew did not expect the crayfish’s coloring to be so bold in real life. “In the pictures, it looks photoshopped,” he says.
After the filming ended, Brust took the crayfish Peterson found, put it in a container with some water, and shipped it off to West Liberty University professor and crayfish expert Zac Loughman. It turns out Peterson’s video, while good entertainment, is a little misleading. The crayfish he dug up isn’t really a new find. Scientists have long known about it—the little creature just hasn’t been officially named.
A Crayfish with no Name
You’ll find four varieties of blue crayfish mucking around in West Virginia. “Blue shows up frequently in crayfish, but no place has as many blue crayfish as West Virginia,” Loughman says.
There’s Cambarus monongalensus, named for the Monongahela River. This crayfish shows up all through central West Virginia into the Northern Panhandle and western Pennsylvania. There’s also Cambarus pauleyi, which lives in a very small range along Interstate 64 just east of Lewisburg. This species was first described in 2015 and was named by Loughman and his colleagues after Loughman’s master’s degree adviser, longtime Marshall herpetology professor Tom Pauley.
The state also is home to two unnamed species of blue crayfish. One lives in the Teays Valley area and is currently being studied by some of Loughman’s students. Then there’s the unnamed species that lives in the Allegheny mountain range, the one Peterson “discovered” and Loughman is working with his colleagues to officially describe and name.
The Cambarus monongalensus, named for the Monongahela River, can be found all through Central West Virginia into the Northern Panhandle.
This crayfish is hardly undiscovered. “It is probably one of the most photographed species (of crayfish) that lives in West Virginia,” Loughman says. Because these critters live in one of the wettest parts of the state, they’re frequently flooded out of their burrows during heavy rains. “It’s totally possible for you to be hiking in the Cranberry Wilderness or Dolly Sods and look down at the path and see a bright blue crayfish lying there,” he says. “I get photos emailed to me all the time.”
It only remains unnamed because, up until now, no one has been able to prove it’s a unique species. Biologists have long suspected it was different, especially since blue crayfish occur at lower elevations, are replaced by a red crayfish species a little higher up, which are themselves replaced by blue crayfish in the highest elevations.
But Loughman and his colleagues have now used genetics to prove the high-elevation crayfish is a species all its own. “The goal is to have a name on it by the end of 2018,” he says. “Naming a species is a somewhat arduous task. You have to be able to show how they’re different, and you have to go through this process of measuring a bunch of different individuals and showing how they’re different morphologically.
“Until we name it, it’s going to share the name of the guy that’s down in lower elevations.”
Although West Virginia’s blue crayfish are biologically distinct, they share similar ecologies. They all live in muddy burrows, which can be up to 7 feet deep. Crayfish primarily live in resting chambers, where they stockpile food and rear their young, but the burrows also have many side tunnels.
Burrows built by the unnamed high-elevation crayfish featured in Peterson’s video are especially interesting. The side tunnels meander out in all directions, frequently running into other burrows. “You get this effect where you’re digging them, you’ll find multiple individuals in a colony. Which is intriguing,” Loughman says. “I go all over the country chasing these things. I’ve sampled at least 20 different species of burrowing crayfish. None of them have colonies quite like our highelevation blue crayfish.”
Scientists used to think blue crayfish “just lived in their holes and ate roots and were kind of boring,” Loughman says. But he and his students set up night vision cameras around burrow openings to capture the crustacean’s nighttime activities.
If the night is humid and warm, there’s a good chance you’ll find a crayfish resting at the opening of its burrow. When something scurries by, the crayfish grabs it. Loughman has seen them eat worms, salamanders, and beetles. “At the same time, they’re grazing like little burrowing cows,” he says. Although they don’t have a taste for ferns, the blue crayfish will eat any kind of broadleaf plant.
This makes blue crayfish very important in their ecosystems. Their omnivorous eating habits allow them to absorb all kinds of energy, which transfers to animals higher on the food chain when crayfish get eaten.
Their burrows serve an important purpose, too. Once crayfish have moved on, their former homes provide ready-made habitats for other animals seeking comfortable underground dwellings. “We’ve found frogs, toads, salamanders, chipmunks, mice—all kinds of animals go down in those burrows,” Loughman says.
Loughman and his students have been all over West Virginia looking for crayfish, wading into thousands of streams in all 55 counties. And yet, there are still lots of questions surrounding the blue crayfish.
“I don’t even know why they’re blue,” Loughman says. It’s something he often discusses with students as they wind down country roads in search of streams. “Blue is a rare color in the animal kingdom. There’s a blue jay, a kingfisher, and—your list kind of stops.”
It could just be a biological fluke. But Loughman has noticed a trend. Not all burrowing crayfish are blue, but all blue crayfish are burrowers. In addition to his work in West Virginia, he’s studied blue crayfish in Tennessee, North Carolina, and Kentucky. “And all of those species are burrowers. To my knowledge, none that live in streams are entirely blue.”
That leads Loughman to think the crayfish’s blue coloring must provide some kind of evolutionary advantage. He suspects it could be a form of nocturnal camouflage, since blue absorbs more light than other colors. “But that’s nothing but pure postulation.”
Solving these mysteries will require further study. That’s easier said than done, since test subjects are difficult to come by. “Collecting burrowing crayfish is a bit of a nightmare because you’ve got to dig a damn hole,” Loughman says.
So Loughman needs some help. He asks that, if hikers come across blue crayfish in the wild, they send him photos with descriptions of the locations—GPS coordinates, too, if possible. He is particularly interested in seeing more Cambarus pauleyi from Greenbrier County. According to existing data, there are only about a dozen known locations for these rare crayfish. “I think they’re more widely distributed than my data demonstrates.”
Contact Loughman using the West Liberty University Crayfish Conservation Laboratory page on Facebook, @wlucrayfish, or by email at email@example.com.