Pandemonium had engulfed Shoal Creek by the time authorities arrived. One fisherman sat, dazed, on a boulder, rocking back and forth, his head in his hands, mumbling, “It was big as a horse – and those pinchers, oh, those pinchers…” as rescue personnel and officers with automatic weapons splashed through the creek to a huge rock where a group of fishermen were splashing and shouting and apparently trying to move the rock.
“What’s going on here?” shouted the officer in charge.
“It’s Frank, here!” cried one of the fishermen, holding another man who was obviously in pain, both legs under the rock, nearly up to his waist. “That thing just grabbed him and started dragging him under the rock.”
Just then a van from Breaux Bridge, La. screeched to a stop along Shoal Creek Road. A group of drooling Cajuns jumped out and pulled a turkey fryer and huge pot out of the back. “Somebody done said dere was one big crawfish here, cher?” asked the driver, a dazed look in his eyes.
Okay, okay, I’m exaggerating a little. It may not have been pandemonium but I bet hearts were thumping when University of Illinois biologist, Chris Taylor and Eastern Kentucky University biologist, Guenter Schuster turned a large rock in Shoal Creek, in southern Tennessee and discovered a crayfish twice the size of anything ever seen in the region before.
Serendipity wasn’t what brought Taylor and Schuster to Shoal Creek. Schuster had seen photos of the Shoal Creek monster in 2009. Schuster recognized the critter as a member of the genus Barbicambarus – thought, at the time, to be a monotypic genus – and forwarded the photos to Taylor, whom he had worked with before. A little investigation led them to a specimen that had been collected in Shoal Creek near where the photo had come from, by TVA scientist Jeffery Simmons.
Oh, for the expedition!
Taylor and Schuster thought they were looking for a wayward bottlebrush crayfish, Barbicambarus cornutus. The rare bottlebrush crayfish discovered in 1884, was known from an area in Kentucky, 134 miles away. The biologists figured the crayfish had likely made the trip in some fisherman’s bait bucket or had been moved by someone interested in commercially raising crayfish. “That’s been going on for 50 years in the U.S., moving species around, so it would not be a surprise if that was the case,” Shuster said.
On the day of the find, Taylor, Schuster and two other biologists had been turning rocks and kicking mud for at least two hours, to no avail and had decided to pack it in when they spied a large flat rock under a bridge. They decided to flip one last rock – and the rest is the beginning of one new chapter in crayfish history.
When they got their new prize back to the lab, they began to notice differences between it and the bottlebrush crayfish. They did DNA sampling and discovered they had an entirely new species of Barbicambarus. They named the crayfish Barbicambarus simmonsi in recognition of TVA scientist Jeffery Simmons, the first person to preserve a specimen of the new species.
The five-inch long B. simmonsi clearly dwarfs the other species of crayfish in Shoals Creek but it, itself, is dwarfed by the almost-lobster sized, nine-inch B. cornutus. Still, B. simmonsi is a creature that would have demanded a second look. “This isn’t a crayfish that someone would have picked up and just said, ‘Oh, it’s another crayfish,’ and put it back. If you were an aquatic biologist and you had seen this thing, because of the size and the setae [hair-like bristles] on the antennae, you would have recognized it as something really, really different and you would have saved it.”
A sentiment we can empathize with
Schuster noted, “We spend millions of dollars every year on federal grants to send biologists to the Amazon, to Southeast Asia – all over the world looking for and studying the biodiversity of those regions. But the irony is that there’s very little money that is actually spent in our own country to do the same thing. And there are still lots of areas right here in the U.S. that need to be explored.”
We here in Western North Carolina need only look to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and it’s All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory (ATBI) to understand what Schuster is saying. It’s getting harder and harder for scientists to get grant money to do studies in the Park, despite the fact that scientist have discovered 6,582 species new to the Park and 907 species new to science – 26 of those new to science are crustaceans including crayfish.
I’ve said it before: “With our ‘Star Trek’ mentality we are poised to go ‘where no man has ever gone.’ We think we are set to probe the nooks and crannies of space.
“Examining shovels full of mud from the GSMNP [or turning stones in Shoal Creek] may not sound as glamorous as going ‘boldly where no man has gone before,’ but the knowledge we stand to gain if the ATBI process is expanded worldwide may have a much more profound effect on human kind.”