In the lab, Schuster quickly realized that the physical characteristics of the new crayfish differed in significant ways from those of B. cornutus. Taylor took tissue samples and compared the specimens' DNA to that of B. cornutus.
"And the DNA said just what the morphology said: This thing is pretty different," Taylor said.
And rare. The researchers made several more trips to the area before they were able to collect enough specimens to confirm what they already suspected: The giant crayfish of Shoal Creek was a new species. They named it Barbicambarus simmonsi, in honor of the TVA scientist who had collected the first specimen.
Later trips to the region confirmed that B. simmonsi was also present in the southern reaches of Shoal Creek, just north of where it drains into the Tennessee River in northwest Alabama.
Most people are shocked to learn that there are about 600 species of crayfish in the world, Taylor said, with more than half of those occurring north of Mexico. Alabama and Tennessee are hotspots of crayfish diversity, he said.
The discovery of a new species of crayfish in itself is not unusual, the researchers said. About two new species of crayfish are found every year in the U.S. But the discovery of a large, distinctive new species in a region that had been studied for decades is quite astounding, they said.
"We looked at museum collections around the country," Taylor said. "There were no specimens in there masquerading under a different species name. No one had found this thing and called it B. cornutus. This thing had not been seen by scientific eyes until last year."
The fact that a distinct species was overlooked for so long indicates that studies of species diversity in the U.S. are not getting adequate resources, Schuster said.'/>"/>
|Contact: Diana Yates|
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign