C of I group uses crayfish to study ecosystem toxicology

Shy, elusive and able to fit into the smallest of underwater cracks, the signal crayfish isn’t the easiest animal to get one’s hands on. But this summer, a group of students at The College of Idaho is diving right into a study of the crayfish and its ability to serve as a key indicator of contaminants in Idaho’s aquatic environments.

Funded by grants from the M.J. Murdoch Charitable Trust and the Idaho INBRE program and led by C of I biology professor Dr. Mark Gunderson, the C of I group is spending ten weeks collecting crayfish throughout southwestern Idaho and studying them in a campus biology lab. The project aims to learn more about how different chemicals affect aquatic ecosystems by collecting crayfish from field sites where a variety of land uses are taking place and measuring the animals’ responses to contaminants through lab exposure studies.

“Crayfish often serve as keystone species in aquatic ecosystems,” Gunderson said. “They feed on a variety of plant and animal matter, and they’re also an important food source for fish and terrestrial organisms. We’re using the crayfish as an invertebrate model to serve as an indicator for exposure to contaminants in the environment.”

Gunderson and his six-student team of Collin Clovis, Patrick Erstad, Laura Holden, Alicia Latta, Connor Lineberger and Juan Carlos Cervantes Reyes are traveling throughout the Treasure Valley to collect crayfish from the Boise River, Snake River and Payette River watersheds. The students get right in the water, using hand nets and buckets to collect samples from each site.

“We’re using crayfish as a biomarker so we can see how certain chemicals might affect us in the end,” said Clovis, a senior biology major from Boise. “Not only do [humans] pollute the water, we also use it for drinking and watering crops, so it all circles back to us.”

In addition to its scientific merits, the project is giving Gunderson’s students an opportunity to perform high-level undergraduate research both in the field and in the lab.

“It’s been really cool to work so closely with [Dr. Gunderson],” said Erstad, a junior biology-religion double major from Boise. “It’s great hands-on experience, and it’s really important to have the opportunity to learn this closely and interactively where you can synthesize your own knowledge and figure things out on your own.”  

Founded in 1891, The College of Idaho is the state’s oldest private liberal arts college. It has a century-old tradition of educating some of the most accomplished graduates in Idaho, including seven Rhodes Scholars, three Marshall Scholars, and another 11 Truman and Goldwater Scholars. The College is located on a beautiful campus in Caldwell, Idaho. Its distinctive PEAK curriculum challenges students to attain competencies in the four knowledge peaks of the humanities, natural sciences, social sciences and a professional field, enabling them to graduate with an academic major and three minors in four years. For more information on The College of Idaho, visit