Researchers learn new tricks to save endangered crayfish

MATEWAN, W.Va. (AP) — Researchers trying to save endangered crayfish during bridge construction in southern West Virginia ended up discovering new tricks to increase the population, the Charleston Gazette-Mail reported.

In order to build a new bridge to carry a Norfolk Southern mainline over the Tug Fork River near Matewan, railroad officials had to work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to ensure construction wouldn’t harm the federally endangered Big Sandy crayfish. The solution involved capturing crayfish from the river, holding them until all the work was done, and then releasing them back into the wild.

While in captivity at West Liberty University’s Crayfish Conservation Laboratory and the White Sulphur Springs National Fish Hatchery a number of the female crayfish dropped eggs.

“We went from 50 crayfish to hundreds of them,” West Liberty professor Zac Loughman said. “We had so many baby crayfish, we didn’t have room for them all.”

With ideal temperatures and plenty of food, the young crayfish reached sexual maturity in about eight months instead of the three to five years it would take in the wild. Part of helping them grow up involved thwarting their tendency to prey on one another.

“Once they get to half-an-inch to three-quarters-of-an-inch in size, they will totally feed on any siblings they catch molting,” Loughman said. “So then, the issue becomes having enough facility space. …We moved a bunch of them into bigger aquaria and threw a lot of stuff — PVC pipes, gravel, aquarium plants — into the aquaria in the hope it would create hidey-holes where the animals could molt in peace and not get eaten by their siblings.”

In the end, 30 of the youngsters survived to maturity, and on Nov. 9, both the lab-born crayfish and the original 50 were released back into Tug Fork.

Clad in wetsuits and snorkels, Loughman and David Foltz, a senior mussel and crayfish biologist with Weirton-based Edge Engineering and Science, hand-placed the crayfish, one by one, into prime hiding places.

Loughman said the rearing effort “has huge implications” for the future of West Virginia’s two endangered crayfish species, the Big Sandy crayfish and the Guyandotte River crayfish. He said the two species could eventually come off the endangered species list if researchers can standardize propagation and restore stream habitat.

Norfolk Southern paid all the expenses for the multiyear effort to preserve the Big Sandy crayfish. Foltz said he wasn’t at liberty to reveal the actual cost of the project, but it was “a drop in the bucket, compared to the cost of the bridge’s construction.”

“The big thing about this project is that the presence of an endangered animal didn’t shut down economic development,” Loughman said. “We were able to conserve the crayfish, and Norfolk Southern was able to put its bridge in. …That’s the way conservation should be done, if at all possible.”