September 10, 2011

New crayfish species ID'd in W.Va.
West Liberty scientist finds creature in Greenbrier waters

Charleston, W.Va. -- A West Liberty University scientist has identified a new crayfish species that lives only in West Virginia.

Zac Loughman, an assistant professor of biology at the Wheeling-area school, discovered the creature in the upper Greenbrier River and several of its tributaries.

"Other biologists had found it; they just didn't realize it was a unique species," said Loughman. "It looks sort of like another species, Cambarus robustus, that's also found in the Greenbrier watershed.

"In fact, the first guy to ever do work on crayfish in West Virginia, a Harvard scientist named Walter Faxon, talked very briefly about it in a paper published back around 1900. He said the Cambarus robustus specimens he collected in the area around Durbin were slightly different from other specimens he'd found."

More than a century later, Loughman noticed the differences, too.

"When I grabbed one for the first time, I thought, 'Wait a minute.' I couldn't tell exactly what was different about it, but I knew something was different," he said.

Back at his lab, Loughman compared the specimen against a robustus specimen.

"The claw on the new crayfish was much more elongated than a robustus claw. The new animal was much more streamlined, skinnier at all stages of life than robustus. And there were all kind of differences with [the portion of the crayfish's exoskeleton that extends between its eyestalks]."

After a thorough check of the scientific record, Loughman realized he'd identified a completely new species. He named it Cambarus smilax, the Greenbrier crayfish.

"The greenbrier plant is part of the genus Smilax," Loughman explained. "I thought smilax would be appropriate for the species' scientific name. Plus, it sounds kind of cool."

Loughman documented the discovery in a scientific paper co-authored by West Virginia University biologist Stuart Welsh, Loughman's collaborator in an ongoing Division of Natural Resources-sponsored assessment of the state's crayfish; and Thomas Simon, a senior research scientist at Indiana State University.

After identifying the new species, Loughman and his West Liberty biology students set about determining the extent of its range. They combed the Greenbrier Valley and took samples.

"One, it's a species found only in West Virginia," he said, "and two, it increases the state's biological diversity by one organism."

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