Comics and Crayfish

Invasive species have once again made it into the newspapers, but this time in the comics section. In a wonderful blend of science and art, nationally syndicated Stone Soup creator Jan Eliot’s latest storyline involves her character Alix, a young girl interested in science, who releases an invasive crayfish into the wild. Inspired by getting to know former National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) director Jane Lubchenco and soon-to-be director Kathy Sullivan, Eliot created the strip with science education in mind.

Kids learn about Oregon's native signal crayfish.

Kids learn about Oregon’s native signal crayfish.

Alix is a young biologist-in-the-making, based off of Eliot’s own interest in ecology and marine biology. “I thought for a brief period of time that I might study marine biology, but I ended up going into art and English,” Eliot says. “But I just love that world. I’m an itinerant tide pool stalker; I’m the one that searches out the science stories in the newspaper, so it’s really fun that I have this character who can be a vehicle for those interests.”

Eliot consulted with Sam Chan, Oregon Sea Grant’s aquatic invasive species specialist, to make sure she had some of the details right – that the red swamp crayfish is in fact a common invasive species and that it preys on smaller, native crayfish.

In the story, Eliot says that Alix finds a crayfish while on a camping trip, but when she realizes she can’t keep the crustacean as a pet, she releases it into a local creek near her home, not realizing the danger she’s creating for native crayfish. As the crayfish flies through the air towards the water, it thinks, “Invasive species in the house!” While the the story is fiction, the scenario is a way that invasive species are spread.   See the strip here:

Eliot was going to end the story there, but a fan encouraged her to pursue the topic, impressed by Eliot’s inclusion of invasive species in her comic. “It’s the perfect storyline for the first weeks of school,” Eliot says, “to have [Alix’s] science teacher take a trip to the creek with her students and all they can find is this huge [crayfish] that has eliminated the rest of the population.”

Eliot’s science teacher character Erma was named after a user-friendly decision tool on the NOAA website called ERMA (Emergency Response Management Application). Since Alix is so involved with science, Erma’s science-savvy ways allow Eliot to channel her own love for science through her comic.

“There’s a fun purpose in it too, addressing the whole ‘girls in science’ aspect,” Eliot explains, “and having a little girl that’s fascinated by all things in the marine world.”

The invasive species storyline will play out over the next few weeks, and you can follow Stone Soup online at Go Comics. You can read more about Sea Grant’s involvement with Jan Eliot at Oregon Sea Grant’s blog, Breaking Waves.

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