When invasive species somehow find their way into an environment where they don’t belong, they can disrupt everything from the food web to public health.

Recently, researchers at UCLA and other California institutions discovered an unwelcome squatter that might directly affect the spread of mosquito-borne disease. It’s the red swamp crayfish, a tasty delicacy often found in gumbo that may also be allowing mosquito populations to thrive.

Native to the southeastern U.S., the crayfish are now found in California. While investigating their damaging ecological presence, scientists made a chilling observation: In streams where crayfish concentrations were high, there was a noticeable spike in the number of mosquito larvae. They found something else, too—a sharp decline in the larvae-eating dragonfly nymphs that they would expect to see in the area.

In the paper, published in Conservation Biology, lead author Gary Bucciarelli observed 13 streams in the Santa Monica Mountains. Eight had crayfish populations and were high in mosquito larvae but low on dragonfly nymphs. Five crayfish-free streams had more nymphs and fewer larvae.

In a lab experiment putting the crayfish, mosquitoes, and dragonflies in proximity, Bucciarelli watched as the dragonfly nymphs—normally happy to prey on mosquito larvae—kept their distance in the presence of crayfish, apparently spooked by the crustaceans. In the wild, high concentrations of crayfish appear to be interrupting the dragonflies' hunting habits, allowing more mosquitoes to roam unchecked.

That’s not great news for humans. Mosquitoes are notorious for spreading viral diseases like West Nile, Zika, and malaria. In Los Angeles, where the mosquito population could conceivably get a boost, 15 of the 16 mosquito species can harbor pathogens that pose a threat to public health.

No one is quite sure how crayfish spread to the area—it’s possible fishermen used them as bait decades ago—but it's likely their presence will continue interfering with native species. In 2015, a nonprofit backed by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife started removing crayfish from the Santa Monica streams using traps set by volunteers. The captured crayfish were sent to Malibu to become snack fodder for opossums and raccoons. But it’s a sizable task. Roughly 600 crayfish might be caught in a given day out of the millions thought to inhabit the waters.

Conservationists might soon pursue more aggressive means to combat the crayfish's damaging ecological footprint. In addition to scaring dragonflies into inaction, they can threaten the integrity of underwater dams by burrowing and consume plants that help purify the water.

h/t National Geographic]