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Rare Fairy Shrimp Found In Groton

July 5, 2008

By Kim Martineau, The Hartford Courant, Conn.

Jul. 5–NEW HAVEN — – A Yale scientist who recently rediscovered a rare type of fairy shrimp in a woodland pool is asking the state to put the tiny critter on its endangered species list.

Eubranchipus holmani may never capture the popular imagination the way the imperiled polar bear or red panda have. But biologist Eric Lazo-Wasem hopes his petition will give this homely crustacean and the freshwater pools it calls home some protection.

“At the very least, we want to know about its biology before it disappears,” he said.

Eubranchipus holmani has beady eyes, a trunk-shaped snout and is extremely uncommon — it was last seen in Connecticut more than 50 years ago. Finding it became an obsession for Lazo-Wasem after reading its description in a field guide called Freshwater Invertebrates of the U.S. more than a decade ago.

Back then, Lazo-Wasem was scouring freshwater pools on the site of a proposed housing development in his hometown of Redding. His hope was that the shrimp, if confirmed alive, could stop the bulldozers. The scouting mission uncovered plenty of Eubranchipus vernalis — a closely related fairy shrimp species common to Connecticut — and even a rare type of mole salamander, but no Eubranchipus holmani.

This spring, the hunt brought Lazo-Wasem to a wooded area in Groton where a Connecticut College professor had suggested a look. He and his assistant, Daniel Drew, waded into a freshwater pond by the side of the road, scooped up several dozen fairy shrimp and brought them back to Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History. At first Lazo-Wasem thought he had collected the common variety until putting one of the small fries under his microscope.

One look at its trunk and Lazo-Wasem knew he had found his white whale: E. holmani. On a recent tour of his lab at the Peabody, Lazo-Wasem clicked through pictures of his specimens like a proud father leafing through the family photo album. When asked about the critters’ aesthetic appeal, his eyes grew wide.

“Oh God,” he said. “They’re gorgeous.”

The fairy shrimp is named for its graceful swimming strokes. Its legs beat in waves, like fingers practicing scales on the piano. In the wild, fairy shrimp snack on plant matter and bacteria and live in puddles and other temporary freshwater pools. Their eggs can withstand years of drought, hatching when the rains replenish their pools.

Their translucent bodies provide camouflage in the water but otherwise fairy shrimp have few defenses, making them easy pickings for frogs and predatory insects. “They’re the opossum of the invertebrate world,” said Lazo-Wasem.

On boyhood fishing trips with his dad, Lazo-Wasem found himself drawn more to the bait than the sport. If they were fishing in freshwater, it was the crayfish that captivated him, in salt water, the crabs. At Eastern Connecticut State College, Lazo-Wasem studied biology, specializing in crustaceans.

Even in the face of shrinking biodiversity, scientists are still discovering never-seen-before invertebrates. Lazo-Wasem has discovered about a dozen species and complains, jokingly, about the paperwork required to write them up. His hum-drum tone changes when he describes the thrill of finding animals written off as extinct. The joy in that sort of discovery, he says, is like “catching your first tarpon on a fly-rod.” Before E. holmani, his greatest triumph was finding a new species of clam shrimp in the Caribbean and then, after a six-year hunt, finding the same creature again.

In a recent letter to Groton, Lazo-Wasem has asked for permission to return to the site where he found E. holmani to survey the pool and monitor future changes. He also wants to see if a related clam shrimp, last seen at Bluff Point State Park in the 1970s, is living there.

Updated every five years, the state’s list of endangered plants and animals will be fully revised by 2009. Currently more than four dozen species are listed as endangered, mostly due to lost habitat. Ultimately, the commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection will decide whether to add E. holmani.

Contact Kim Martineau at kmartineau@courant.com.

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Copyright (c) 2008, The Hartford Courant, Conn.

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