It seems that Rusty Crayfish, an invasive species not native to New Hampshire waterways, are taking over turf in the Sugar River. And they are being watched. Three Newport middle school eighth graders, Kaitlin Carroll, Ayesha Nezamabadi andVictoria Burroughs dedicated part of their summer vacations to setting and checking traps and detailing habitat, water and atmospheric variables and continued with the project well into the school year.
Funded by a grant from the Wellborn Ecology Fund through the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, a group of dedicated ecologists in Newport Middle School’s science program have been tracking the species for months. Led by the enthusiastic efforts of Grade 7 science teacher, Jessica Warkentien, the group set crayfish traps up and down the Sugar River and has been monitoring crayfish activity at least weekly. Putting together a study and presentation, the group of four middle school girls presented their findings to the Wellborn Ecology Fund Conference in Canaan, NH early in November.
The three girls were the only students in attendance at the gathering of educators from New Hampshire and Vermont who discussed projects and goals for “place-based ecology study” in their schools. Speakers, workshops, displays and static exhibits were available for the fifty or more participants in the program, with the Newport student presentation a keynote welcome to the conference.
The Newport students were eager to talk about their project, speaking with teachers before the conference about their work, with details about bait, crayfish activity and information learned through the project. “Rusty crayfish is an invasive species that is affecting native species,” said Victoria Burroughs, who added that the group even discovered a “new” sub-species of rusty crayfish in their monitoring of area waterways.
“These crayfish are a lot more vicious than the native species,” said Ayesha Nezamabadi, who also added that the group concluded that the more aggressive actions of the invasive species may be leading to a decline in native populations.
Even bait type was a source of experimentation, according to group member, Kaitlin Carroll. “We tried dry dog food and wet cat food,” said Carroll. “They liked the wet cat food a lot better,” she added, saying the traps were often empty when the dry food was used. “We started off with hand made traps,” said Burroughs, “but when we got the regular crayfish traps, it turned out to be very helpful.”
“We got nets, traps and a cooler to keep the crayfish we caught in. We called it the ‘cooler of death’,” said Nezamabadi, who said that her teacher took the crayfish caught home “for an appetizer.”
The girls said they collected data on sheets they designed to track temperature and oxygen levels of the water as well as weather and air temperature. They studied the crayfish activity in captivity on occasion, catching a “cannibalistic crayfish video” which they posted on their school web page, according to Carroll. It was only after several weeks experiments that they “figured out how to do everything right,” according to Burroughs, “but we still need to do some other things. We need to add the date to our data sheets, which we didn’t do and it created some problems when we tried to figure out what data sheets were from when.”
“We need to be able to tell females from males and where the crayfish are spreading to,” said Carroll. “These are aggressive crayfish. We need to find out if they interfere with native populations.”
Warkentien worked with several area scientists and researchers in developing the crayfish project, even having the group meet with Dr. Kathleen “Kak” Weathers, a Biogeochemist researcher from the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, New York, who assisted the group in developing data sheets and a series of questions they hoped to answer through their research: 1. How does water temperature affect the number of crayfish?, 2. What is the ratio of rusty crayfish to native crayfish in the Sugar River?, 3. How are rusty crayfish affecting the invertebrates in the area?, 4. Does the rusty crayfish attack other crayfish or does it impact one kind more than another?, 5. What if we find a crayfish that isn't on the identification cards? and 6. Which bait do crayfish prefer?
For more information about place-based ecology and the Wellborn Ecology Fund, visit www.nhcf.org. To watch the crayfish video and for more information about the crayfish project at Newport Middle School, visit the science drop-down under “Academics” at the Newport Middle and High School page of www.sau43.org.