Crayfish mysteriously migrate into Medford cemetery

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Crayfish mysteriously migrate into Medford cemetery

Crayfish are moving from their home at Brooks Pond into Medford's Oak Grove Cemetery.

Medford residents visiting the dearly departed at Oak Grove Cemetery might have noticed a strange, new phenomenon slowly creeping its way across the manicured lawns and among the headstones.

Hundreds of crayfish have migrated from nearby Brooks Pond at the Brooks Estate and descended upon the Playstead Road cemetery’s verdant grass. No sure reason is known as to why the animals have wandered so far from the pond.

“There just happened to be one right outside my office,” said Cemetery Superintendent Stephen Brogan. “One of the guys scooped it up and brought it back to the pond.”

In the Northeast, the lobster-like crustaceans are best known as crayfish. However, they’re also called crawfish, crawdads and “mudbugs” in New Orleans where Cajun cooks have been known to boil them and stir them into seafood gumbo.

Brogan said the cemetery usually sees a lot of crayfish around this time of year, but for some reason, it seems like more have ventured out this year.

Tom Lincoln, president of the Medford-Brooks Estate Land Trust (M-BELT), said he’s never seen the crayfish, but they seem to be a sign of a healthy environment.

“We are delighted to hear about the crayfish at Brooks Pond,” wrote Lincoln in an e-mail. “Given that they have apparently been spotted for years by others, we believe they are good evidence of the ecological health of this wonderful place. Therefore, we hope people will let them play their role in the life of Brooks Pond, and leave them in their natural environment.”

Richie Eckert, an employee at the cemetery for 11 years, has never seen the crayfish before. This year, however, they’re everywhere.

Eckert started noticing crayfish on the cemetery grounds last spring and theorized about the cause behind the sudden, odd behavior. Eckert said heavy snow and ice over the harsh winter killed the pickerel, bass and other fish that once stocked Brooks Pond, leaving the crayfish without predators to regulate their population.

However, state ecologist Tim Simmons said the migratory behavior of these crayfish more likely points to the introduction of an exotic species. Simmons is a restoration ecologist for the Natural Heritage Endangered Species Program under the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, part of the state’s Department of Fish and Game.

“It’s unusual behavior for a native species,” Simmons said. “It’s almost certain these crawfish probably came from fisherman bait or the aquarium trade or both.”

More than 350 of the approximately 500 crayfish species worldwide live in freshwater lakes and streams in the United States. Simmons said about eight or nine species exist in Massachusetts right now, but about six of those are non-native.

Similar mass crawfish sightings have been reported in Milton and another suburban community west of Boston.

“In this case, they were going across the parking lot,” said Simmons. “Because it’s not a native species, then it’s not a natural phenomenon. We have no jurisdiction unless it’s a native species.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that nonnative crayfish are a major threat to aquatic biodiversity. They can cause the decline of native crayfish by spreading crayfish diseases, preying on eggs, young fish, amphibians and native crayfish and eliminating native water plants and habitats.

Simmons advised people who encounter crayfish not to try moving them to another spot.

Mollusk expert Adam Baldinger echoed Simmons’ warning. Baldinger works as curatorial associate and collection manager in the Invertebrate Zoology Department of Harvard University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology.

Baldinger warned that crayfish can harm humans by pinching them with their claws, adding, “some of the larger ones could break your skin.” Simmons explained adult crayfish can grow as large as five and a half inches.

Even though the migrating crayfish are likely nonnative and therefore potentially harmful to the pond’s native aquatic life, Simmons said the problem should correct itself.

“It’ll go away on its own,” Simmons said. “Conditions all come together at once so you have a lot of crayfish in one space, and they have to move.”

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