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Wack: We can learn a lot from the disappearing crayfish

A few weeks ago, some ambitious Westminster High School students organized a stream cleanup out at Wakefield Valley Park. The stream running through the old golf course, now an emerging nature preserve, is called Copp’s Branch. It starts on the McDaniel golf course, runs parallel to Md. 31 past Baugher’s, then into the park.

The kids pulled out a large quantity of trash. I helped, and as we waded in the stream pulling out plastic bottles and bags, I did not expect to see much in the way of wildlife. I was pleasantly surprised by the sight of a few minnows darting and a couple of crayfish scuttling around. One of the other adult volunteers grew up in the neighborhood and played in the stream as a child, before any of the neighborhoods along Long Valley were built. She remembers crayfish were far more abundant then, in the cleaner, healthier stream.

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Crayfish are tough, adaptable creatures. They eat just about anything, can survive a wide variety of temperatures, and are one of the more pollution-tolerant organisms. They are often among the last animals to abandon a polluted stream. Copp’s Branch, although not dead, is severely stressed. According to the Carroll County Bureau of Resource Management, the stream has an IBI score (index of biotic integrity) of only 1.66 (out of 5), quantifying just how damaged the stream is by local pollution.

I grew up playing in Rock Creek Park in the 60’s and 70’s, and Rock Creek back then was severely polluted. I do not remember seeing crayfish in that creek. Some of my first crayfish sightings were up above Cunningham Falls, in the streams up in the Catoctin Mountains. Seeing tiny little lobsters on top of a mountain was a bit of a head scratcher.

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Evolutionary biologists estimate that freshwater crayfish diverged from their saltwater lobster ancestors about 250 million years ago. The oldest lobster ancestor fossils are well over 300 million years old, predating the dinosaurs by a long way.

When George Washington resigned his commission in Annapolis in 1783, the crayfish were here. In 1524, Verrazano became the first European to sail up the Chesapeake Bay, and the crayfish were there. When Native Americans were travelling up the Potomac River, and then the Monocacy to cross Carroll County to get to the Susquehanna River, the crayfish were here. When the first pyramids were under construction in Egypt almost 5000 years ago, the crayfish were here.

Twenty thousand years ago, when Siberian natives crossed the Bering Strait during the most recent Ice Age to settle North America, the crayfish were already here.

One million years ago, crayfish scattered in streams when woolly mammoths waded, and the carrion of saber-tooth tiger kills served up feasts for crayfish.

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Four million years ago, when our primate ancestors came down out of the trees, the crayfish were here.

Thirty-five million years ago, when a large asteroid slammed into the coast near Virginia, sending massive tsunamis up the slopes of the towering Appalachian Mountains, spreading molten debris up and down the East Coast and forming the Chesapeake Bay, the crayfish were here.

Sixty-six million years ago, another even bigger asteroid smashed into the Caribbean off the coast of Central America and wiped out the dinosaurs, and the crayfish were here. Just before that, a juvenile T. Rex lived and died somewhere near present day Montana, falling into a river where it’s carcass was picked over by crayfish. The skeleton was buried in sediment, fossilized, and was dug up in 1988 to become the Nation’s T. Rex at the Smithsonian.

The North American continent first began to split off from the supercontinent of Pangea some 200 million years ago, forming the Atlantic Ocean and the east coast of North America. It was then that the crayfish first scuttled upstream into the rivers and streams pouring off the slopes of the towering snow-capped Appalachians that would become the Potomac, the Monocacy, and eventually Little Pipe Creek and the streams of Westminster.

The resilient crayfish survived all those catastrophes, and outlived so many other dominant species, and yet in just a few decades, human development has significantly degraded their numbers here because of environmental pollution.

The biggest lesson the crayfish teach us is the folly of human arrogance, and that perhaps we should have more humility when approaching the natural world and how we interact with it. The idea that private property empowers individuals to trash their surroundings without any personal responsibility or consequences is one of the most self-destructive delusions of contemporary culture. Respect and reverence for creation, even the seemingly lowly crayfish, dictate a different approach.

Robert Wack writes from Westminster. He can be reached at Robert.p.wack@gmail.com.

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