Friday, September 23, 2011

Joe Neal welcomes 'our own Dirty Hairy, defender of the Ozark undergound'

Click on images to ENLARGE. Click again for closer look.
Photo by David Oakley
During Thursday’s cool rain I had a totally, completely unexpected visitor at my front door, one of those “What the…” moments… Mr. Aubrey Shepherd, with a plastic critter cage in hand, come visiting. He lives in south Fayetteville, adjacent the World Peace Wetland Prairie, which he led the fight to save and protect. I first met him three decades ago, when we worked on the same newspaper. He’d come today on account of the rain.

In the little cage was what, when I was a kid, we called crawdads. This one was unique, an Osage Burrowing Crayfish that occurs ONLY in our Ozarks part of the universe, and only in places that used to be part of our tallgrass prairies. I’d told him five years ago I’d like to see one when it was raining and they were out crawling around the prairie. I couldn’t believe he’d remembered.
Photo by David Oakley

Just dismissing them as “mudbugs” completely misses their extraordinary beauty. The business end features pincers, and these are formidable on our Osage Burrowing Crawfish. They are blue, with yellow at the sharp clasping ends. The eyes dark, the antennae long, most of the body an earthy combination of greenish browns and muted yellow-oranges.

By the way, in case you and your family have lived here since pioneer times, I wouldn’t get too smug about your precious nativity. Osage Burrowing Crawfish got here way, way first. Their lineage here is measured not in a few hundred years, but in many thousands. Most of the towns and cities in northwest Arkansas are built where these crawfish live in burrows underground, even in areas that seem dry. Maybe you’ve run over their mud chimneys – soil structures made from excavating their underground burrows -- with your lawn mower. They also survive in ditches and other wet spots.
Photo by David Oakley

Aubrey’s crawfish wasn’t by herself, either. This was big momma, with scores of little ones under her protecting tail. Naturally, I wanted to see her closer and get a peek at the babes. If she was the least bit intimidated by Aubrey capturing her (with the plan to take her right back after we were done looking and release her), she showed no signs of fear. She reared up, blue claws ready to fire like some Dirty Hairy, defender of the Ozark underground. When I ignored her warning, she got me sharply by my poker, drawing blood. “Go ahead and make my day,” according to Clint Eastwood, and maybe this offended crawfish.

Over the past decade, the Osage Burrowing Crawfish has become something of a signpost for me. How much of the current economic and ecological mess in which we find ourselves in 2011 is traceable to ignoring signposts like this crawfish? Its presence tells us critical things about our natural heritage. How many unique natural creatures can we destroy, how much habitat can we pave, without bringing down direct negative consequences upon ourselves?
Photo by David Oakley

For more photos of this and other burrowing crayfish photographed by Aubrey James Shepherd on September 22, 2011, at World Peace Wetland Prairie and along the Fayetteville paved trail through Pinnacle Foods Inc. wet prairie west of WPWP, please see World Peace Wetland Prairie blog.

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