When a student in Paul Gulezian's Introduction to Environmental Sciences class gathered a strange, nearly translucent creature from the Des Plaines River, even the Oakton Community College professor wasn't sure what it was.
After doing a little research, Gulezian realized his class had found a Mississippi grass shrimp, a rare find for the Chicago area and the first in Cook County. Not only is the shrimp an uncommon find, but its very presence could spell good news for the Des Plaines River.
"If a body of water is disturbed by people or has a lot of pollution, these shrimp couldn't survive," Gulezian said. "I wouldn't have expected to find a species like that in the river, but it shows that at least this stretch of the river is doing fairly well."
A similar shrimp was found further north last summer in a portion of the river passing through a Lake County forest preserve.
Gulezian said its presence downstream is a sign that the quality of the Des Plaines River water habitat likely is improving.
"It's an indication that the ecosystem is fairly healthy for it to harbor a species like this," he said. "It's not a what you would call a pristine river by any stretch of the imagination, but the fact that we caught such a sensitive species in there is certainly a good sign."
It also was a fun find for Gulezian's class because with the grass shrimp -- also sometimes called a glass or ghost shrimp -- his students could examine it's internal organs and systems without harming it.
Gulezian and his class released the shrimp back into the river to allow it to reproduce.
"The species itself is very charismatic for a shrimp. It swims fast, it almost looks like a ghost and it's transparent," he said. "It's a neat looking species."