For years, Zac Loughman has worked to identify, and sometimes help name, new crayfish species in West Virginia.
His students and colleagues thought he should have one named after him. It took a couple of years of hard work, but they made it happen; a strikingly colored crawdad known colloquially as the “blue Teays mudbug” now bears the scientific name Cambarus loughmani.
News of the recognition delighted Loughman, an assistant professor of biology at West Liberty University.
“My inner 10-year-old is still doing handsprings,” he wrote in a Facebook post shortly after being notified.
It wasn’t exactly a surprise; Loughman knew some of his students, working with his mentor, had been working on the project since 2016. Still, when the word came down, Loughman felt overwhelmed.
“It made me feel incredibly proud,” he said. “Not for myself for having a cray named after me, but so incredibly proud of — and grateful to — the people involved.”
The effort to identify the species and name it for Loughman began, appropriately enough, at a conference of crayfish biologists.
David Foltz, a student and protégé of Loughman’s, remembers the occasion.
“Roger Thoma approached me, and he said it was time to name a species after Zac,” Foltz recalled. “He said he had the perfect [crayfish] for it.”
Thoma, a renowned expert on crayfish taxonomy, evolution and conservation, was one of Loughman’s mentors. The two had collaborated on other crayfish-identification projects, including two in the same species complex.
“I had been thinking for some time that Zac needed a species named after him,” Thoma said. “There were a lot of undescribed species of crayfish, and I was looking for young people to get in and do some of the work. Dave was excited about naming it for Zac.”
Giving an undescribed species a name takes a ton of work, both in the field and in the lab. Researchers must identify physical features that set the creature apart, determine the extent of its home range, and examine its DNA to make sure of its uniqueness.
Foltz and his fellow students jumped at the chance. They focused on the crayfish Thoma suggested. Loughman and Thoma had already determined its physical and genetic uniqueness; what remained was to determine exactly where it could be found, compile the results into a formal paper, and request that the animal be recognized as a separate species.
Often such efforts get funded by government or academic grants. Loughman’s students did the work on their own time, and at their own expense. When opportunities presented themselves, they drove from West Liberty, in West Virginia’s northern panhandle, more than 100 miles to locations in Mason, Putnam, Cabell, Kanawha and Lincoln counties.
One of the searchers, Ravenswood native Nicole Sadecky, said she often drove home on weekends and spent much of the time “running down [to the study area] to collect samples.”
It wasn’t an easy task. The crayfish they sought might have been bright blue, but it was decidedly difficult to lay hands on.
“It’s an upland burrowing species,” Sadecky explained. “Burrowers are always more difficult to find than stream crayfish. I spent a lot of time driving around, looking in ditches for burrows.”
When she found burrows, she then had to dig until she found the 3-inch-long crayfish that created it. Sometimes she found it, sometimes she found other burrowing species, and sometimes she found nothing at all.
“I remember doing one site where I dug out 10 burrows and found just one crayfish,” she recalled. “It was pretty challenging.”
Sadecky, Foltz and the others eventually found colonies throughout an area that roughly corresponded to the floodplain of the ancient Teays River. Just when they thought they’d determined the extent of the crayfish’s range and were ready to publish their findings, something odd happened.
Lauren Cole, the naturalist at Chief Logan State Park, posted a photo to iNaturalist.org, a website where people can post photos of creatures they’ve found and ask others to help identify them. The photo was clearly the bright blue crayfish the students were seeking to identify — found 30 miles outside the species’ identified home range.
The discovery set off another flurry of activity. The students scrambled down to Logan County where, sure enough, they found a thriving little colony of blue crawdads. When they checked surrounding watersheds, however, they didn’t find them. Eventually they discovered that mountains of fill dirt had been transported to the park sometime in the 1970s. They deduced that the crayfish came in with the dirt.
Finally satisfied that their field work was valid, the students and Thoma were ready to identify the species.
They did so with a bit of humor.
In a paragraph explaining why they wanted to name the creature for Loughman, the students wrote:
“It is fitting that this crayfish be named in his honor, as both he and this crayfish are reclusive, hard to track down, and when faced with adversity never back down and often advance with arms flailing.”
Loughman loved the characterization.
“It’s my favorite part of the whole paper,” he said. “Others might think it was disrespectful, but it was spot-on. The people who wrote it clearly know Zac.”
Thoma said it was “entirely appropriate” to name a species after Loughman.
“In terms of [crayfish biologists], Zac is one of the leading people,” Thoma added. “He’s really out at the forefront of crayfish ecology. He’s established a wonderful lab [at West Liberty], and a lot of good work is coming out of there. There’s no controversy in naming a species for him. He’s made great contributions to the field.”
Loughman said he’s grateful for the work his students put in.
“They did it because they wanted to do it, because they had a passion for it,” he continued. “They didn’t benefit from this. When others were out partying, these guys were digging blue crayfish because they love these animals. That’s why they did this, and that’s awesome.
“I’m honored. And I’m also honored by the realization that long after I’m dead and gone, there will still be critters called loughmani scuttling around on the hilltops of West Virginia.”