Researchers describe crayfish conservation concerns and strategies

Orconectes meeki meeki from Big Piney Creek

Whether you call them crayfish, crawfish, or crawdad, this creature needs protection nationwide to prevent extinction, according to Chris Taylor, Illinois Natural History Survey curator at the University of Illinois. In a recent article published in the journal Hydrobiologia, Taylor and colleagues have outlined possible strategies for conservation practices to protect crayfish from invasive species, habitat changes, and potential overexploitation.

The United States has the richest diversity of crayfish fauna in the world with 394 species and subspecies, and scientists who study crayfish believe that half of the total number of species need some type of conservation attention. Yet only six species are listed under the federal Endangered Species Act.

“There is a big dichotomy between what aquatic biologists think should be protected and what is actually protected by law,” Taylor said. “Crayfishes are a critically important link in energy flow in aquatic ecosystems, as they eat algae and convert it into animal tissue.”

The first crayfish weren’t listed under the Endangered Species Act until the late 1980s. By contrast, many species of mussels and fishes were listed decades earlier.

Once species are listed, the Endangered Species Act requires certain agencies to monitor and maintain protected animals. Consequently, funding is allocated to the study of protected species.

With funding available for studies, several hundred scientists in the United States study mussels, whereas only a handful study crayfish, Taylor said. What’s more, comprehensive conservation strategies and efforts have been implemented for mussels, but only marginally so for crayfishes.

One of the key reasons that crayfishes are at risk is because species often have an extremely narrow range of only one or two river drainages, or in some cases one or two streams. If a stream became polluted from a chemical spill, for example, an entire species of crayfish could be wiped out. Habitat changes from stream channelization or dredging and sedimentation also pose a risk.

Another problem is that invasive crayfish compete with native species for resources.

“The Rusty Crayfish is the poster child for the perils of invasive aquatic species,” Taylor said. “They have been used for fishing bait for a very long time. At the end of a day, fishermen typically leave their live bait in lakes or streams rather than taking them back home or they escape from fishing hooks, and thus the invasives have spread.”

Although overharvesting of crayfish hasn’t been documented, under-monitoring and lax record keeping could potentially lead to exploitation. Not enough attention is paid to harvesting of crayfish, so relatively rare species could be in danger.

Knowledge gaps in understanding the physiology, habitat needs, stress, and evolutionary relationships of crayfish are also a problem.

“We believe that crayfish are susceptible to changes in habitat, invasive crayfishes, and climate, but we don’t know what they can tolerate in terms of chemical or non-chemical stressors,” Taylor said. “That lack of knowledge is a threat in itself.”

In the article in Hydrobiologia, Taylor and colleagues provide some strategies for consideration, including increased attention to crayfish environmental tolerance limits, crayfish harvest and overexploitation, and regulations for preventing the spread of invasive species. Another strategy is to focus on crayfish needs for habitat restoration efforts.

“This paper is a working document, a call for researchers to start thinking about management activities for crayfish species,” Taylor said, “We openly invite those working in crayfish research and conservation to test the plan or suggest alternative strategies. There have been some improvements over time, but there are still gaps in research, policy, and conservation.”

The article, Towards a Cohesive Strategy for the Conservation of the United States’ Diverse and Highly Endemic Crayfish Fauna, is available online.


Media contact: Chris Taylor, 217-244-2153,

eDNA helps researchers track and identify endangered and at-risk species

The way eDNA works is organisms create genetic trails from the DNA through cells (skin, fins, feces) they shed within their environments. Scientists can detect the residual DNA through water or soil samples that can reveal species present in the environment.

In an attempt to gain greater insights into five at-risk species, researchers from the Illinois Natural History Survey (INHS) are working with the U.S. Department of Defense, Construction Engineering Research Laboratory (CERL), and the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois to study endangered and threatened species in a new way.

This seemingly unlikely collaboration is testing a promising technology called environmental DNA, or eDNA, to assess the status and distribution of the Calcasieu Painted crayfish, Kitsatchie Painted crayfish, Texas Pigtoe mussel, Louisiana Pinesnake, and the Alligator snapping turtle in Fort Polk, Louisiana.

“These are rare, hard to find species, and we are comparing the utility of conventional sampling and eDNA,” said, Mark Davis, a conservation biologist at INHS. “This work is important because eDNA might be faster, more efficient, and more cost effective than conventional sampling; now we will find out if it really is.”

Louisiana pinesnake
Louisiana pinesnakes are one of the rarest snakes in North America. These snakes were listed as threatened by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in May 2018. Image courtesy of U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The way eDNA works is organisms create genetic trails from the DNA through cells (skin, fins, feces) they shed within their environments. Scientists can detect the residual DNA through water or soil samples that can reveal species present in the environment. In the case of the Alligator snapping turtle, eDNA sampling was faster than trapping in identifying this at-risk species in known locations, but also revealed new locations where conventional methods had not revealed its presence.

“These turtles along with freshwater mussels and crayfish, are some of the most threatened groups of aquatic species in North America, but are extremely understudied,” said University of Illinois graduate student Jordan Holtswarth, who assisted Davis with eDNA sampling at Fort Polk. “The development of eDNA sampling could help us learn more about these species than traditional sampling has allowed in the past.”

“eDNA could provide substantial impact in conservation listing decisions, and potentially become the means for helping agencies in decision making,” Davis said.

Texas Pigtoe mussels
Texas Pigtoe mussels are currently being considered for listing by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

The Calcasieu Painted crayfish, Kitsatchie Painted crayfish, and the Texas Pigtoe mussel are proposed to be listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The Louisiana Pinesnake is listed as threatened and the Alligator snapping turtle’s conservation status is currently under review. Davis and his team used eDNA to sample the Fort Polk environment for each of these species.

several crayfish in a collection bin

Former University of Illinois undergraduate student Elise Snyder worked on the project with Davis’ group and performed eDNA sampling of the Alligator snapping turtle. “eDNA is a great way to collect data while minimizing environmental disturbance, which is especially valuable when working with threatened or endangered species,” said Snyder, “This experience has been extremely helpful in preparing me for a future career by learning new lab techniques and procedures, and how to work with such small quantities of DNA.“  Snyder is now a Ph.D. student at the University of Notre Dame doing research on a similar project exploring the movement of eDNA in flowing water.

A key problem for conservationists is that once an organism becomes a protected species, the protocol for how researchers can study that organism might change entirely. Due to its non-invasive nature, eDNA may be the only way for scientists to study and monitor protected species with more stringent research provisions.

This research was supported by the U.S. Department of Defense and the Louisiana Department of Game and Fish.

Scientists seeking rare river crayfish aren’t just kicking rocks

From left, natural resources and environmental sciences professor Eric Larson, graduate research assistant Christopher Rice and INHS curator of fishes and crustaceans Christopher Taylor used old-school methods and newer techniques to study a rare crayfish. Photo by L. Brian Stauffer, University of Illinois News Bureau.

INHS and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign researchers are gathering the population size and distribution data needed to determine whether the cold-water crayfish (Faxonius eupunctus) should be listed as an endangered species.

Read the full story from the University of Illinois News Bureau here.

New species named after Curator of Crustaceans

Cambarus taylori, named in honor of Dr. Chris Taylor, INHS Curator of Crustaceans

Three new species of crayfishes, endemic to the Upper Kentucky River watershed in Kentucky, have been described: Cambarus taylori, named in honor of Dr. Chris Taylor, Curator of Crustaceans at the Illinois Natural History Survey; Cambarus guenteri, named in honor of Dr. Guenter Schuster, retired professor of biology at Eastern Kentucky University; and Cambarus hazardi, named after Oliver Hazard Perry and the town of Hazard, Kentucky.

These new species were described in a paper published in Zootaxa, accessible here.

Spinywrist Crayfish discovered

Say hello to the Spinywrist Crayfish, a new species discovered by Chris Taylor (INHS), Cody Rhoden (INHS), and Guenter Schuster! Its coloration is extremely variable across its geographic range—the lower Tennessee River drainage of south-central Tennessee and northern Alabama.

The journal article was published in Zootaxa and is available here.

Biologists discover giant crayfish species right under their noses

It is unusual for aquatic biologists to miss a big species like Barbicambarus simmonsi. The population of this crayfish appears to be very sparse, however. Individuals were usually found under the biggest rocks in the deepest parts of a stream. Photo by L. Brian Stauffer, University of Illinois News Bureau.

CHAMPAIGN, lll. – Two aquatic biologists have proven that you don’t have to travel to exotic locales to search for unusual new species. They discovered a distinctive species of crayfish in Tennessee and Alabama that is at least twice the size of its competitors. Its closest genetic relative, once thought to be the only species in its genus and discovered in 1884 about 130 miles away in Kentucky, can grow almost as big as a lobster. …

Read the full story from the University of Illinois News Bureau here.