"Elmer Crow waits patiently while a crowd of fifth-graders settles on the lawn outside the Morrison Knudson Nature Center in Boise, Idaho. One by one, the students stop squirming as they realize that the Nez Perce elder is watching them, hands folded behind his back. Crow's face is solemn but his eyes are playful. The students stare up at him expectantly.
"Am I supposed to do something?" he says finally, pokerfaced. The kids sit frozen. Crow puts his hands on his waist and grins, wiggling his hips in a little dance. "How about that?" he says, pausing for effect. The students erupt in giggles. Crow laughs, too, his leathery wrinkles deepening.
Then he reaches into a canvas bag and dramatically produces the star of the show: a three-foot-long brown rubber lamprey. The students respond to the snake-like fish with squeals of disgust.
"Mr. Lamprey is actually pretty neat," says Crow, suddenly serious. This misunderstood species is about 200 million years older than the dinosaurs. Like salmon, lampreys hatch in freshwater, migrate to the ocean and then return to their birthplace to spawn. They're a choice meal for whales, salmon and seals. In adulthood they become parasites, suctioning onto ocean mammals or fish and using their raspy teeth and tongues to feed.
Their freeloading habits haven't won them many champions, but they've found one in Elmer Crow. Crow talks about lampreys like they're members of his family, punctuating his stories with deep belly laughs. One moment he's explaining their complex physiological transformation into parasitic feeders; next he's telling a Nez Perce tale about how Lamprey lost his scales and bones into Suckerfish in a stick game."
Get the Story:
A Nez Perce elder spreads love for lamprey
(High Country News 2/7)
Join the Conversation