Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

May 2, 2009

Deep in the Devil’s Lair

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:07 pm

The devil made me do it a couple of years ago and he made me do it again last week. When I last poured Plaster of Paris down a crayfish hole, it was to discover how the burrow was shaped and how deep it went. After digging a hole four foot deep in order to extract the plaster cast, I found out. I ended up with a three foot long contorted replica of a burrow that ended at the water table.

 That should have been it, but, last week I got the urge to pour plaster down another crayfish hole. I guess this is a middle age thing or something. Some guys want to get a red car and others want to pour plaster down a crawdaddy hole every other year. The thought is not as irrational as it sounds. As a naturalist I am “naturally” curious about such things and the literature is inconclusive on such questions. My last effort was unsatisfactory because the crayfish hole was made by a very small crayfish with very little imagination. I’ve noticed over the years that many of the burrows appear to have multiple entrances.

 The Devil Crayfish is a common burrowing crayfish species that lives in moist meadows and grassy places close to the water table. They are aquatic but do not live in ponds or streams. Instead, they dig down into the earth and live secret hidden lives soaking their simple souls within dark ground water tunnels – coming out only at night to feed on dead crap and worms. There appears to be little reason why this particular species is called a Devil Crayfish, because scientifically they are called Cambarus diogenes which refers to a Greek weirdo and not a fallen angel. Diogenes was a 3rd century B.C. hermit of who lived in a tub or large kettle. He was known to walk the streets looking for an honest man. Diogenes carrried a lantern, even though he performed this senseless street duty during the day!

Like Diogenes, burrowing crayfish live their lives inside tubular retreats of their own making. Much of the excavated mud, produced during the excavation process, is piled up around the entrance to create a tower or chimney (see below) although some entrances are “clean.” Though the chimneys are familiar sights, their makers are not. So, I had a sudden desire to see a live “chimney crayfish” and to re-investigate their burrow layout.

I did the deed in the middle of the week. It took a full box of plaster and a half pitcher of water to pour enough slurry down a hole to the point of filling it up.  Two days later, I dug the hardened plaster out. The pieces broke into several pieces and some of the plaster at the bottom failed to properly set, but I ended up with an assemblage of burrow casts (see here) which I was able to re-construct, sans bottom connector, into an exact cast of the channel system (see below and here).

The result is a main tunnel (the tall portion in the middle) which includes the inside of the 8 inch chimney, a branching right hand channel which returns to the surface without a chimney, and a deep descending loop that descends into the water table and then curves back to the surface as another left hand “secret” entrance. The sides of the burrow are irregular and bear the scratching construction marks of the devil his-self.

Much to my delight, I found that I had managed to entomb the crayfish resident of this tunnel system without killing it. It turned out to be a she-self and not a he-self. She had managed to back up into one of the side galleries and was there when I broke open the earth (see below). Apart from having a few chunks of plaster sticking to the hard exoskeleton, she was fine – pissed -but fine. I was able to identify it as one of those Greek hermit crays.

One of the most striking features of this type of crayfish are the red-tipped claws and the red linings between the segments (see top photo). They are astonishingly bug-eyed when compared to other crayfish species – of which there are 400 species in North America. As you can see, I positioned her next to another intact burrow so as to take a few “natural shots” before letting her return to her subterranean element. You can hardly notice the bits of plaster can you?  Really, they don’t look that obvious if you just squint your eyes. 

The she-devil eventually retreated down one of the secret entrances (see below). While there is a definite possibility that she was killed and eaten by the current resident, it is just as likely that she encountered a lonely male who, in stunned silence, praised the crayfish gods (or devils) for his sultry gift. The fact that I did not find any plaster-encrusted crayfish parts outside the burrow entrance the next day may provide evidence that the latter, rather than the former, scenario played itself out! I expect to see lots of little mud chimneys popping up around my yard as a result.

So, there you have it. I have satisfied my biennial plaster-in-the-crayfish hole needs and identified a real burrowing crayfish in the process.  On top of that, I ended up with another cool-looking plaster sculpture to add to my collection. Two years from now, who knows, I might paint the thing red and park it in the garage.


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  5. funny post

    Deep in the Devil’s Lair « Naturespeak

    Trackback by funny post — October 5, 2014 @ 12:54 am

  6. Just wanted to leave you a real comment appreciating your educational and very interesting blog post! I’ve loved observing crayfish ever since I was a kid, and I didn’t know they could be found on people’s lawns before. Thank you for this!

    Comment by feyuca — April 24, 2015 @ 7:45 pm

  7. Thank you! I enjoyed the piece. Who knew crayfish dug such elaborate homes (secret entrance and all)? I felt sorry for the test subject, but I’m a notorious molly-coddler.

    Comment by Gentlemom — December 5, 2017 @ 10:46 pm

  8. Where do you live? I live in the Chicago suburbs, I’ve seen cray/crawfish in the lakes and riverbanks but never in the fields. And do people eat crayfish??

    Comment by Tony — February 5, 2018 @ 10:17 pm

  9. This websites comment dating code has an issue I left the previous post in February 2018 and it says Dec 5, 2017?? Oh well

    Comment by Tony — February 5, 2018 @ 10:20 pm

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