While in graduate school at Virginia Tech University, Bob DiStefano won a $50 prize for dressing up in a homemade crayfish costume fashioned out of red foam and cardboard. More than 20 years later, he’s still getting paid to dress like a crayfish.
Granted, that probably isn’t in his job description.
DiStefano has been a resource scientist for the Missouri Department of Conservation for 19 years; he specializes in studying crayfish.
He also frequently speaks at schools and public events, where he uses crayfish as an attention-getter.
DiStefano, along with a pool full of crayfish, will be at Flat Branch Park on Thursday for the Stream Extravaganza, which is part of the Twilight Festival. The free event will provide information about the organisms that live in Columbia’s streams.
“My belief is increasing in the thinking that education is the most important tool we have for conservation,” DiStefano said.
He teaches how water quality can affect crayfish as well as other organisms in streams.
“Crayfish are wonderful to focus on — kids are drawn to them,” he said.
Children are also drawn to the green, full-body crayfish costume DiStefano sometimes wears to speaking events and the jumbo, inflatable crayfish pool toy that he uses to teach crayfish anatomy. Both will be on hand at the Stream Extravaganza.
To his friends who studied with him at Virginia Tech, the flamboyant teaching devices are nothing new.
Del Lobb, a co-worker who attended college with DiStefano, said his friend has long brought humor into the lab.
“His interest (in crayfish) didn’t seem unusual, but his antics always seemed unusual,” Lobb said.
DiStefano started studying these small, lobster-like invertebrates more than 20 years ago while at Virginia Tech and never looked back.
So when the conservation department began to study crayfish in the late 1980s, DiStefano was the natural choice.
DiStefano’s research has found that crayfish make up two-thirds to three-fourths of the diets of goggle-eye and smallmouth bass in southern Missouri.
“Crayfish are literally fueling those fish populations,” DiStefano said.
DiStefano alsogathers basic information about species of crayfish to build a database that biologists can use as a reference.
“Sometimes, in the species world, we don’t learn about a species until it’s endangered, and then you’re playing catch-up,” he said.
By his estimates, of the nearly 400 species of crayfish in North America, less than 8 percent have been studied.
DiStefano raises crayfish in a pond on his Harrisburg farm, using them for educational events and his annual crayfish derby.
For the past 18 Memorial Day weekends, DiStefano has been holding crayfish derbies, where friends, families and colleagues gather to race crayfish across a baby pool.
“Bob has treated life like a joyride, and he has always helped family and friends enjoy life, too,” Lobb said.
Crayfish-themed prizes are awarded, including T-shirts, jewelry and bobble-head dolls. Each derby has a theme and a T-shirt.
“The wedding T-shirt has to be my favorite,” Cindy DiStefano said. She and Bob were married in 1994 and had their reception at the crayfish derby the next weekend. That year’s T-shirt featured crayfish in wedding attire holding claws.
Crayfish are just a part of DiStefano’s larger interest in conservation.
He said he’s always been “outdoorsy,” spending his childhood summers camping, canoeing and hiking in northern New England.
When DiStefano was 10, his father quit his job in the defense industry and went back to college to become a wildlife biologist. The career change reduced his family’s income by two-thirds. His father’s decision to pursue his passion impressed DiStefano.
DiStefano said he lives by the goal of leaving the planet better than he found it.
“Streams and lakes can be used for the benefit of people, if it’s done in a wise manner,” he said. “If it’s not done in a wise manner, then our kids and grandkids won’t have the some opportunities that we have now.”