Legendary giant crayfish species discovered in Tennessee

In Tennessee, reports recently surfaced of a gigantic crayfish that no one had ever seen before. Much to their surprise, researchers found one hiding under a rock.

This crayfish is twice as big as its relatives, and there's only one other previously known species that's even remotely similar. This other species, Barbicambarus cornutus, was discovered in 1884 about 130 miles away in Kentucky, and can get as big as a lobster. This new crayfish has been named Barbicambarus simmonsi, with its species named for the scientist who discovered it. The Barbicambarus genus is unusual outside just its size, with tiny-hair like bristles on its antennae that look like tiny beards.

Considering how unusual such a creature is, aquatic biologist and co-discoverer Chris Taylor is convinced no one had ever seen this species before:

"This isn't a crayfish that someone would have picked up and just said, 'Oh, it's another crayfish,' and put it back. If you were an aquatic biologist and you had seen this thing, because of the size and the setae on the antennae, you would have recognized it as something really, really different and you would have saved it."

Researchers first learned about this new species in 2009, when a local man sent Eastern Kentucky University biologist Guenter Schuster photos of a huge crayfish at Shoal Creek. Schuster contacted his long-time collaborator Taylor, and both figured it was just an example of Barbicambarus cornutus, although it would be very unusual for the creature to be found so far away from its natural stomping grounds back in Kentucky.

They learned that Jeffrey Simmons, a scientist with the Tennessee Valley Authority, had discovered a similar specimen just a few miles from where the photos were taken, and so they set off for Shoal Creek. But hours of searching got them nowhere, and Schuster says they were ready to quit:

"We had worked so hard and long that we were ready to give up and find another site. And we saw this big flat boulder underneath a bridge and so we said, 'OK. Let's flip this rock, just for the heck of it; this will be our last one.' And sure enough, that's where we got the first specimen."

They eventually found one more example of the species under another boulder, although two specimens is a very low tally for three hours of work. Later lab work on the creatures' DNA revealed what their unusual appearance already suggested - these crayfish were members of a completely new species. And, as Taylor explains, we had absolutely no idea at all that this species existed before the photos were taken:

"We looked at museum collections around the country. There were no specimens in there masquerading under a different species name. No one had found this thing and called it B. cornutus. This thing had not been seen by scientific eyes until last year."

It's very rare to find a completely new species that's this big and distinctive, particularly in a well-studied part of the United States that has been under pretty much constant academic investigation for the last fifty years. Cryptozoologists might want to savor this moment - this is probably the closest real scientific equivalent to finding mythical creatures like Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster that they're ever going to get.

[Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington]