Big Sandy Crayfish: Freshwater Species of the Week

Big Sandy crayfish have declined across their range, although they have not yet been listed as endangered. Photo: Guenter A. Schuster


World Water Day may have passed, but there are still many freshwater ecosystems under threat. This week, the Center for Biological Diversity filed a formal intent to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on behalf of a crustacean, the Big Sandy crayfish (Cambarus veteranus).

The Center faults the FWS for failing to make a decision on listing the crayfish for protection under the federal Endangered Species Act. According to the Center, the Big Sandy crayfish has declined by 70% over the past 40 years, largely due to water pollution from controversial mountaintop-removal coal mining.

The Big Sandy crayfish appears to have disappeared from West Virginia, has lost more than half its range in Virginia, and is rare and declining in Kentucky, reports the Center.

“The unique Appalachian Big Sandy crayfish needs protection because water pollution is driving it to extinction,” said Tierra Curry, a biologist at the Center, in a statement. “Mountaintop-removal coal mining is ruining the water — both for wildlife and for people. If we protect streams for the crayfish, then we’ll also be protecting public health and water for drinking, swimming and fishing.”

The Center and local allies had petitioned for listing of the crayfish in 2010. The next year, the FWS stated that the Big Sandy crayfish “may warrant” protection. However, the agency has now missed its one-year deadline for making a final decision.

Crayfish, also known as crawdads, crawfish, mudbugs, and freshwater lobsters, are important aquatic species. They help clean the water by scavenging on dead matter, and they are an important food source for a variety of animals, from raccoons to birds.

Crayfish burrows are used by as many as 400 species, from bass to frogs and small mammals. The burrows also help aerate the soil.

The American Southeast boasts more freshwater biodiversity than any other place on Earth, although it has already lost 50 species to extinction.

Will the Big Sandy be next?


Brian Clark Howard is a writer and editor with NationalGeographic.com. He was formerly an editor at The Daily Green and E/The Environmental Magazine and has contributed to many publications, including TheAtlantic.com, FastCompany.com, MailOnline.com, PopularMechanics.com, Yahoo!, MSN and elsewhere. His latest book, with Kevin Shea, is Build Your Own Small Wind Power System.

  • Susan Sauter

    Owning a half-mile of frontage of the Big Sandy (how many Big and Little Sandy’s there are!) river/creek, I observed a crayfish that looks much like the above just yesterday. I thought the river might host these guys but it was the first time I’d seen one here in the 15 years we returned to live in N. WV. Long live the crayfish! Short live area gas fracking.

  • Michele

    I saw one of these this morning! Made me stop the car it was so HUGE! Cars were beeping or I wouldve snapped a photo. I live right next to the appalacian trail. He looked like a lobster. Awesome!

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