KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — A new species of crayfish may have been discovered by two Tusculum University students, according to a release from the school. The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency is currently examining whether the blue crayfish is indeed a new species.

On Feb. 21, Joe Calloway and Breanna Mathes were looking for frogs on the Tusculum Nature Trail as part of a class assignment when they discovered a unique blue crayfish. The crayfish was surprising to them due to its color and larger size. They took a photo of it and then released it back into the water.

“It was very shocking to find that species out there considering we had no idea it was there or how long it was there,” Mathes said. “It was amazing to see how easy it was hiding under our noses and we didn’t even know it.”

Calloway, who had been an intern with a TWRA stream survey unit, knew the TWRA studied crayfish and sent the photo to Carl Williams, a TWRA wildlife technician. Williams wanted to see the crayfish, so on Feb. 22, Calloway and Mathes returned to the same area and captured one that Williams picked up the next day.

“This was a burrowing crayfish, which is difficult to catch because it usually spends daylight hours underground,” Calloway said. “We were fortunate to be in the right spot to capture it when it came out so we could provide it to the TWRA.”

To further investigate the possibility of a new crayfish species, the TWRA collected tissue samples from the specimens found on campus as well as other crayfish populations in Tennessee. DNA analysis will be conducted over the next two to three years to determine if the Tusculum crayfish are indeed distinct from other known species.

“In April, we surveyed that part of the campus and caught a good series of specimens,” said Williams. “We molted them out, and they were pretty unique looking. They were definitely not what you would find on the Cumberland Plateau or in the Blue Ridge, so that gave us a suspicion these were probably something new. It’s fun to pick something up and think, ‘This could be the first time anyone has ever held this species in their hand.’”

If the crayfish found at Tusculum were indeed different, they would become the 96th species of this crustacean in Tennessee. This discovery is particularly noteworthy since the TWRA had conducted crayfish sampling a few years ago on U.S. Forest Service property in the Paint Creek watershed of Greene County and identified a blue crayfish that looked different from those previously documented.

“What Joe and Breanna found looks similar to that but not exactly,” Williams said. “It could be just a little bit of variation between populations, or they could be two different things. That’s what was going through my mind – we’ve either expanded that population from the Paint Creek watershed to the Nolichucky system, or it could be something else that is unique to the Nolichucky system. It’s going to be exciting to see where it ends up.”

Calloway has graduated from Tusculum with a bachelor’s degree in environmental science and is now working as a larval hatchery technician for Sustainable Aquatics in Jefferson County.

“East Tennessee is highly diverse in the number of fish and plant species, and I am happy that Breanna and I might have found another example,” Calloway said. “I am looking forward to seeing the results of the examination and will be pleased if Tusculum was the source of something distinct.”

Mathes, now a senior, is pursuing bachelor’s degrees in environmental science and biology. She is also interning with the U.S. Forest Service.

“I’m kind of in disbelief,” Mathes said. “It’s hard to believe that Joe and I were just casually looking for frogs one day and we stumbled on a potential new species.”