|Photo courtesy of Anna Newburg|
Less than a year after the discovery of a new species of giant crayfish in Tennessee, Barbicambarus simmonsi, a discovery was made inside of an ice cave in central Pennsylvania which promises to shed new light on the evolution of fish, crustaceans, and amphibians. A local outdoorsman, Nicholas Bianco, made the discovery while exploring a small cave located in the remote area of central Pennsylvania known as "Saint Anthony's Wilderness", an expanse of 14,000 acres nestled between Peters Mountain and Blue Mountain, a few miles north of Harrisburg. Also known as Stoney Valley, it is the second largest roadless area in the state, and includes Swatara State Park, Weiser State Forest, and State Game Lands #80 and #210 within its boundaries.
Bianco, who had recently purchased a metal detector, was exploring in the vicinity of Rausch Creek in November of last year, looking for relics from a 19th century mining town which was located in the area, when he decided to look for the source of a small run which flowed into Rausch Creek. Bianco traced the source of the water to the top of a small hill. "I followed the tiny stream uphill until it disappeared beneath a bunch of boulders," he explains. "I walked across the field of boulders and could hear the sound of running water beneath the rocks." Intrigued, Bianco continued to explore the hill and found a small cave on the other side. "I was fascinated by this underground stream because I had always heard legends of a lost Indian silver mine rumored to be in the area," he explains. "When I came across a small cave I decided to check it out, in the event that it may have been the legendary lost silver mine." By crawling on his hands and knees, Bianco was able to enter the cave about five feet until the opening narrowed to a foot-wide gap. "The sound of running water was very discernible and seemed to be coming from the narrow gap," says Bianco. "I reached my arm into the gap, expecting to feel water, but grabbed a chunk of ice instead." Trapped inside the ice was a partially-decomposed animal which, at first glance, appeared to be part reptile, part crayfish, and part scorpion.
|Location of Mr. Bianco's discovery|
Bianco returned to his pick-up truck, carrying the ice chunk in a bucket. He melted the ice by placing the bucket on the floor and cranking up the truck's heater. After returning to his home in Mifflin County, Bianco emailed the Pennsylvania Game Commission and informed them of his find; he received no response. A few days later he sent an email to Penn State University's Wildlife and Fisheries Science department, again failing to elicit a response. "I guess they thought I was off my rocker," theorized Bianco, who then added, "I suppose the folks at Penn State were too wrapped up in the Jerry Sandusky scandal to respond to my email." (Editor's note: Mr. Bianco's find took place around the time of the PSU sex scandal which broke in late 2011)
With nowhere else to turn, Mr. Bianco paid a visit to his former high school biology teacher. "To say that I was flabbergasted would be the understatement of the century," said the teacher, who chose to remain anonymous. The teacher sent letters to local professors, none of whom seemed interested in the find. "I sent roughly a dozen emails, along with pictures, and only received one reply, in which I was accused of perpetrating a hoax," explained the teacher. "But that's Pennsylvania for you. Here (in Pennsylvania) we're about as progressive as an arthritic snail. You would have to unearth an ancient Roman arena in your backyard before someone got off their duff to come take a look at it."
|Photo courtesy of Anna Newburg|
The high school science teacher consented to speak with us by telephone on the condition of anonymity, explaining that he was only two years away from retirement and didn't want to stir up (quote) "a hornet's nest of controversy over a dead mudbug". In mid-December, the teacher promised to write a report offering his opinion of the cryptid creature extracted from the ice cave by one of his former students. We received his report in February, along with a separate message informing us that the creature's remains have since been returned to Mr. Bianco, who is still waiting for an expert to examine his find. On May 7, JOTB's Anna Newburg traveled to Mr. Bianco's home in Mifflin County for a follow-up interview, taking the photographs which appear here.
Below is the copy of the letter we received from Mr. Bianco's former teacher earlier this year.
Dear Ms. Newburg, et al.
Before I offer my impression of the unidentified animal found by Mr. Bianco inside of a cave located near the mouth of Rausch Creek in Lebanon County on November 4, 2011, I would like to state, for the record, that: 1.) I am not an expert in zoology, and 2.) I have no experience in the field of crytozoology, or the study of unidentified species, and 3.) the specimen in question is no longer in my possession.
I received the specimen from Mr. Bianco on the evening of November 29, which was sealed in a clear plastic bag in an attempt to prevent further putrification. Mr. Bianco explained that after melting the chunk of ice, the soft tissue remaining on the skeleton began to decompose rapidly. Since the specimen's tissue was too far putrefied, preventing any useful study, I informed Mr. Bianco that I would need to remove all remnants of decayed flesh so that I could examine the skeleton. Mr. Bianco gave his consent.
On December 3, I removed last remnants of soft tissue and measured the specimen, which measured approximately ten inches in length. The specimen's most noticeable feature was a long thick bony spine featuring raised osteoderms (not made of bone but of a chitinous protein similar to the exoskeletons of crustaceans and insects), which culminated in a tail which was curled, much like that of a scorpion. The specimen's tail was devoid of the venomous telson consistent with scorpions; however the specimen's telson most closely resembled that of a crayfish, its long tail ending in a caudal furca replete with resial ramus and lateral ramus. I believe that the specimen's curled tail is an example of Batesian mimicry, an evolutionary adaptation used to scare off predators. However, since the creature had been allowed to evolve for millions of years without the presence of predators in its subterranean habitat, the lengthened tail could have been an evolutionary adaptation which aided the creature in navigation and locomotion.
The specimen's head is virtually indistinguishable from that of a crayfish, except for under-developed eyes and a lack of pigment commonly associated with cave-dwelling animals. The bones of the skeleton are somewhat flexible and have the feel and appearance of chitin rather than true bone, which may possibly suggest that the specimen had evolved from a sarcopterygian or crossopterygians during the late Devonian period. It is a generally accepted fact that the earliest tetrapods evolved from Devonian sarcopterygians and it is believed that amphibians evolved from crossopterygians. The specimen's body may have been covered with cosmoid scales, like those covering coelacanths, or the body may have been covered in skin like that of an amphibian, since amphibians also evolved from lobe-finned fish of the Devonian period like the coelacanth. Strangely, the specimen has hind legs and crude front legs/arms, which implies that this animal falls somewhere on the evolutionary scale between sarcopterygians and tetrapods. The flesh of this specimen probably featured a lateral line which aided the animal in finding food; a feature found in many species of fish and amphibians. Lateral lines in crustaceans have been documented since 1985 (Denton and Gray 1985, Proceedings of the Royal Society of London Series B, vol. 226, p. 249). It is perhaps worth noting that blind cavefish (Amblyopsidae) also locate food via chemoreceptors in the lateral line.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this specimen are the hind legs, which are similar in skeletal structure to the hind legs of a modern bullfrog. The specimen's femur, tibia, fibula, astragalus, and calcaneum appear similar to the common bullfrog; however, there are some peculiarities. Instead of having a frog's phalanges and metatarsals, the specimen's "feet" are nearly identical to the pereiopods of modern crayfish. This may indicate that the legs and feet of modern amphibians evolved from the pereiopods of crustaceans. Specimen lacks the swimmerets (pleopods) found in most crustaceans. Since the swimmerets are used for swimming, the lack of pleopods suggests that this creature was not adapted for swimming but, instead, depended on its hind legs for locomotion.
Another strange skeletal feature appears near the creature's chelae (claws). In modern crayfish, the dactyl and propodus of the chela are joined to the carpus, the carpus is joined to the merus, and the merus is joined to the basioischial segment. Oddly, this specimen's merus appears to be part merus and part radio-ulna, and is attached to a humerus, which resembles that of a frog. I could not tell whether or not the specimen has scapulae because this would require dissection, which is an undertaking best left to an expert. The specimen's pleon features a cartilaginous sternum which is a feature found in reptiles and amphibians. Since it is believed that the sternum first evolved in tetrapods as an extension of the pectoral girdle, it is my belief that, beneath the sternum may be foundd the clavicle and scapula. In crustaceans, the pleopods (swimmerets) are joined at the pleon. In this specimen, the front legs are joined at the pleon.
The specimen appears to have a movable neck, which is an important feature. In early amphibians, the cleithrum/clavicle complex allowed neck movement. However, the cleithrum disappeared in the early stages of reptile evolution. The lobe-finned fishes also feature a cleithrum. This indicates that the specimen first lived before the appearance of reptiles, and may have been one of the first amphibians.
This creature may have first existed between 420 and 485 million years ago, between the time of the first boned fishes and the appearance of ray-finned fishes, trigonotarbid arachnids, and land scorpions. The specimen's amphibian characteristics, such as its primitive hind legs, pectoral girdle, and sternum may suggest that this creature may be a distant relative to the Xenopus laevis, or African clawed frog, which is the only known clawed species of amphibian. Both animals are scavengers which live in wet habitats.
It is my opinion that the specimen had existed for millions of years as a much smaller freshwater animal, living beneath underwater rocks. At some point the creature's ancestors began to inhabit subterranean rivers and streams, much like amblyopsidae fishes. A lack of predators allowed this creature, heretofore unknown to science, to grow to its large size. However, a geological event such as an earthquake must have closed off all possible exits, trapping the creature in its subterranean habitat where it was allowed to evolve uninterrupted for millions of years. During this period of unhindered evolution, the creature no longer required its pleopods for locomotion, due to its shallow water habitat. This led to the development of hind legs, much like those found on amphibian species. It is possible that this creature possessed the ability to "walk" on land, though it probably spent most of its life in water. Its long tail, when not curled up, allowed the animal to swim when necessary. On land, the tail provided the animal with balance, and a means to "scare off" predators through Batesian mimicry. The animal probably hopped with its powerful hind legs, while using the tips of its claws to drag itself over obstacles. Its amphibious nature allowed the animal to scavenge food on land and in water, which would have been an evolutionary necessity because of the lack of food in a subterranean environment.
It is also my opinion that the specimen discovered by Mr. Bianco had been alive up until September or October of 2011. During this period, much of Pennsylvania experienced record flooding due to a lengthy period of heavy rainfall. This surely led to a rise in the water level of the underground river, allowing the animal access to the surface for the first time in several million years. Unfortunately, its large size prevented it from squeezing through the cave's narrow passageway, where it may have gotten stuck. As a result, the creature probably died from starvation, or as a result of entombment in ice.
The remoteness of the area in which the specimen was found causes me to believe that this specimen is indeed authentic, and I believe that with more exploration, several living specimens of this animal may be obtained from the subterranean stream in Lebanon County.
|Photo courtesy of Anna Newburg|
Update: Could this crayfish-like creature be responsible for cattle mutilations?