WEST LIBERTY — Zac Loughman didn’t set out to become “Doctor Crawdad.”
In fact, as a graduate student at Marshall University, Loughman’s interest centered on snakes. The path that made him one of the nation’s leading authorities on crayfish turned out to have more twists and turns than a snake’s back — an Eastern hognose snake’s back, to be precise.
“My research focused on hognose snakes,” says Loughman, now a biology professor at West Liberty University. “Problem is, we had trouble finding snakes to study. We put in 1,500 hours of search time, and we located just one.”
A lone snake wasn’t nearly enough to hang a thesis upon, so Loughman shifted gears. He refocused his research on the repopulation of reptiles and amphibians at an abandoned mine site. After one particular day of field work at the mine, Loughman drove home with his adviser, renowned herpetologist Tom Pauley.
“It was arguably the single most important moment of my professional life,” Loughman recalls. “Dr. Pauley and I were having a conversation, and he said, ‘Don’t go with [reptiles and amphibians]. Pick an animal group that nobody studies, and try to be The Guy in that field.’”
Loughman took Pauley’s advice.
“I started hanging out at [Cabell County’s] Green Bottom Swamp,” Loughman says. “I saw leeches there, and I thought, ‘Well, leeches might be something cool to study.’ I caught some, brought them back home with me and stored them in the refrigerator. They escaped and got all over the fridge. My wife said, ‘No! We’re not doing leeches!’”
Loughman thought briefly about studying centipedes, but quickly discovered there was no future in it. “The conservation biologists of the world don’t seem to recognize that centipedes exist,” he says with a laugh.
Soon enough, however, the answer to Loughman’s career search practically fell into his lap.
“One of my lab mates was doing a thesis, and she had set up nets and pitfalls to catch salamanders and frogs. A hard rain came, hard enough to flood crayfish burrows. These great big crayfish came to the surface and fell into the buckets she was using for pitfalls. So they’re in the buckets with the frogs and salamanders, and it’s like a living blender. A large part of her thesis went up in smoke in just one night,” Loughman says.
“She was really irritated. She brought the bucket into the lab, slammed it down on my desk and said, ‘Figure out what the blank these things are!’ and stormed out of the lab. I looked into the bucket and saw all these crawdads I didn’t recognize, so I got out a copy of The Crayfishes of West Virginia and identified what they were.”
Loughman started wondering what science knew about the crayfish in the bucket. Scientific guides and journals didn’t provide many answers, so he dug deeper.
“I found a paper that said crayfishes, at that time, were the second-most imperiled animal group in America,” he says. “Hardly anybody was studying the natural history of crayfish. Dr. Pauley had urged me not just to be one of the guys in the school, but to be the school. With crayfish, I could do old-school biology on a group of animals that was imperiled, which meant there would be funding. I made the segue to crayfish and the rest is history.”
All that happened in 2004. After Loughman earned his master’s degree, he got an offer to teach at West Liberty, the school where he had earned his bachelor’s degree.
“The offer was contingent on my getting my Ph.D., so I started working on that,” he recalls. “Fortunately, the few crayfish biologists in the country were happy to take me under their wing. From there, I let my inner 12-year-old roll, and let my scientist side guide him.”
One research project led to another. And another.
In an attempt to figure out which West Virginia crayfish species were imperiled, Loughman and West Virginia University’s Stuart Welsh conducted a statewide census. They inventoried the known species and, along the way, ran across new ones.
“I would pull up a net, pick up an animal and say, ‘That’s not supposed to be here. When that happened, we had to figure out if it was a species introduced from somewhere else, or if it was an undescribed [new] species,” Loughman says.
So far, Loughman has participated in the discovery and naming of 10 distinct crayfish species.
In a remote Mingo County creek, he found a creature that would become known as the Tug River crayfish. The Meadow River Mudbug, a bright-blue burrowing crayfish found in Greenbrier and Monroe counties, received the scientific name Cambarus pauleyi, in honor of the man who shaped Loughman’s career path.
In McDowell County, while searching for populations of the rare Guyandotte crayfish, Loughman and his associates discovered the Big Sandy crayfish. He finally found the Guyandotte crayfish in Wyoming County. Both species have since been placed on the U.S. Endangered Species List.
His and his colleagues’ discoveries have not gone unnoticed. The West Liberty Crayfish Conservation Laboratory is now considered “The Lab,” the go-to authority on crayfish throughout the Central Appalachian region. To support Loughman’s research, West Liberty has created a graduate program for biology.
“It’s an incredibly exciting time to be a crayfish guy in West Virginia,” he says. “We have ongoing work with the Guyandotte and Big Sandy crayfish, we’re sampling crayfish in all of western Pennsylvania, and we’re doing work in South Carolina, eastern Tennessee and central Tennessee.
“People are sometimes amazed that I get paid to do what I did when I was a kid, to flip rocks and catch crayfish. As a conservation biologist, my job is to see that the animals I discover are protected and conserved. I go to work every day and know my work has a purpose.”
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