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Crayfish, crawfish, or crawdads — members of the superfamilies Astacoidea and Parastacoidea — are freshwater crustaceans resembling small lobsters, to which they are related. They breathe through feather-like gills and are found in bodies of water that do not freeze to the bottom; they are also mostly found in brooks and streams where there is fresh water running, and which have shelter against predators. Most crayfish cannot tolerate polluted water, although some species such as the invasive Procambarus clarkii are more hardy. Crayfish feed on living and dead animals and plants.

In Australia, New Zealandmarker and South Africa, the term crayfish or cray generally refers to a saltwater spiny lobster, of the type Jasus that is indigenous to much of southern Oceania, while the freshwater species are usually called yabby, or koura, from the Indigenous Australian, and Māori, names for the animal respectively.

The study of crayfish is called astacology.


The name "crayfish" comes from the Old French word escrevisse (Modern French écrevisse) from Old Frankish *krebitja (cf. crab), from the same root as crawl. The word has been modified to "crayfish" by association with "fish" (folk etymology). The largely American variant "crawfish" is similarly derived.

Some kinds of crayfish are known locally as lobsters, crawdads, mudbugs and yabbies. In the Eastern United Statesmarker, "crayfish" is more common in the north, while "crawdad" is heard more in central and western regions, and "crawfish" further south, although there are considerable overlaps.


Crayfish in his burrow

The body of a decapod crustacean, such as a crab, lobster, or prawn, is made up of nineteen body segments grouped into two main body parts, the cephalothorax and the abdomen. Each segment may possess one pair of appendages, although in various groups these may be reduced or missing. On average, crayfish grow to 17.5 centimeters in length, but some grow larger.

Geographical distribution and classification

There are three families of crayfish, two in the northern hemispheremarker and one in the southern hemispheremarker. The southern-hemisphere (Gondwana-distributed) family Parastacidae lives in South America, Madagascarmarker and Australasia, and is distinguished by the lack of the first pair of pleopods. Of the other two families, members of the Astacidae live in western Eurasia and western North America and members of the family Cambaridae live in eastern Asia and eastern North America.

The greatest diversity of crayfish species is found in south-eastern North America, with over 330 species in nine genera, all in the family Cambaridae. A further genus of astacid crayfish is found in the Pacific Northwest and the headwaters of some rivers east of the Continental Divide. Many crayfish are also found in lowland areas where the water is abundant in calcium and oxygen rises from underground springs.

Australasia is another centre of crayfish diversity, with over 100 species in a dozen genera. Many of the better-known Australian crayfish are of the genus Cherax, and include the marron (Cherax tenuimanus), red-claw crayfish (Cherax quadricarinatus), yabby (Cherax destructor) and western yabby (Cherax preissii). The world's largest freshwater crayfish, Astacopsis gouldi, which can achieve a mass in excess of 3 kilograms, is found in the rivers of northern Tasmaniamarker.

Madagascarmarker has a single (endemic) crayfish species, Astacopsis madagascarensis.

Europe is home to seven species of crayfish in the genera Astacus and Austropotamobius.

Cambaroides is native to Japanmarker and eastern mainland Asia.

Crayfish colors

Different species of crayfish come in variety of colors. Some are found as one solid color, while other species are a variety of colors, such as a blue crayfish with some pink along its shell. They are found in black, brown, red, pink, blue, gray, green, yellow, and purple.

Crayfish plague

Some crayfish suffer from a disease called crayfish plague. This is caused by the water mould or mold Aphanomyces astaci. Species of the genus Astacus are particularly susceptible to infection, allowing the more resistant signal crayfish to invade parts of Europe. Crayfish plague is not indigenous to Europe, rather it was introduced by the incorporation of new species of crayfish from the Americas.

Crayfish as food

Boiled crayfish, Louisiana

Crayfish are eaten in Europe, Chinamarker, Africa, Australia, Canadamarker, New Zealandmarker, the United Statesmarker, and the Caribbeanmarker. 98% of the crayfish harvested in the United States come from Louisiana, where the standard culinary terms are crawfish or écrevisses. Louisiana produces 90 percent of the crawfish in the world and consumes 70 percent locally. 70-80% of crawfish produced in Louisiana are red swamp crawfish with the remaining 20-30% being white river crawfish.

In France, dishes with a base or garnish of crayfish (écrevisse) are frequently given the suffix à la Nantua.

Louisianamarker crawfish are usually boiled live in a large pot with heavy seasoning (salt, cayenne pepper, lemon, garlic, bay leaves, etc.) and other items such as potatoes, corn on the cob, onions, garlic, and sausage. There are many differing methods used to season a crawfish boil and an equal number of opinions on which one is correct. They are generally served at a gathering known as a crawfish boil. Other popular dishes in the Cajun and Creole cuisines of Louisiana include crawfish étouffée, crawfish pie, crawfish dressing, crawfish bread, and crawfish beignets. Crayfish are also an ingredient in Chicken Marengo.

A common myth is that a crawfish with a straight tail died before it was boiled and is not safe to eat. In reality, crawfish that died before boiling can have curled tails as well as straight, as can those that were alive, and may very well be fine to eat. Boiled crawfish which died before boiling are safe to eat if they were kept chilled before boiling and were not dead for a long time. (This does not mean that a sack of crawfish that are all dead should be boiled.) A much better test than the straight tail as to the edibility of any crawfish is the tail meat itself; if it is mushy, it is usually an indication that it should be avoided.

Crayfish is a popular dish in Scandinavia, and is by tradition primarily consumed during the fishing season in August. The boil is typically flavored with salt, sugar, ale, and large quantities of the flowers of the dill plant. While most Americans eat them warm, the Swedish and Finnish normally eat them cold. The catch of domestic freshwater crayfish, Astacus astacus, and even of a transplanted American species, Pacifastacus leniusculus, is very limited and to satisfy demand the majority of what is consumed has to be imported. Sales depended on imports from Turkeymarker for several decades, but after a decline in supply, Chinamarker and the United Statesmarker are today the biggest sources of import.

The Mexican crayfish is named locally as acocil and was a very important nutrition source of the ancient Mexican Aztec culture; now this kind of crayfish is consumed (mainly boiled) and prepared with typically Mexican sauces or condiments in central and southern Mexico.

The culinary popularity of crayfish swept across Mainland China in the late 1990s. Crayfish is generally served with Mala flavour (a combined flavour of Sichuan pepper and hot chili) or otherwise plainly steamed whole, to be eaten with a preferred sauce. In Beijing, the Ma La flavoured crayfish (麻辣小龙虾) is shortened to "Ma Xiao" (麻小) and is often enjoyed with beer in a hot mid-summer evening.

Like other edible crustaceans, only a small portion of the body of a crayfish is edible. In most prepared dishes, such as soups, bisques and étouffées, only the tail portion is served. At crawfish boils or other meals where the entire body of the crayfish is presented, however, other portions may be eaten. Claws of larger boiled specimens are often pulled apart to access the meat inside. Another favourite is to suck the head of the crayfish, as seasoning and flavour can collect in the fat of the boiled interior. A popular double entendre laden phrase heard around crawfish season in Louisiana derives from this practice: "Suck the head, pinch the tail".

Crayfish as pets

Procambarus clarkii in a freshwater aquarium
Crayfish are kept as pets in freshwater aquariums. They prefer foods like shrimp pellets or various vegetables but will also eat tropical fish food, regular fish food, algae wafers, and even small fish that can be captured by their claws, such as goldfish or minnows. Their disposition towards eating almost anything will also cause them to consume most aquarium plants in a fish tank; however, crayfish are fairly shy and may attempt to hide under leaves or rocks. When keeping a crayfish as a pet, it is suggested they are provided with a hiding space. At night, some fish become less energetic and settle to the bottom. The crayfish might see this as a chance for an easy meal, or a threat, and injure or kill the fish with its claws. Crayfish are effective scavengers and will consume fish carcasses. They sometimes will consume their old exoskeleton after it has molted. Since crayfish are accustomed to being around ponds or rivers they will have a tendency to shift gravel around on the bottom of the tank, creating mounds or trenches to emulate a burrow. Crayfish will often try to climb out of the tank, especially if an opening exists at the top that they can fit through. Crayfish kept as pets in the U.S. from local waters are usually kept with bluegill or bass rather than goldfish or other tropical/subtropical fish.

However, most species of dwarf crayfish, such as Cambarellus patzcuarensis will not destructively dig or eat live aquarium plants. They are also relatively non-aggressive and can even be kept safely with dwarf shrimp. Because of their very small size of 1.5 inches or less, some fish, such as loaches are often a threat to the crayfish rather than the other way around.

In some nations, such as the United Kingdommarker, United Statesmarker, Australia, and New Zealandmarker, imported alien crayfish are a danger to local rivers. The three species commonly imported to Europe from the Americas are Orconectes limosus, Pacifastacus leniusculus and Procambarus clarkii.

Crayfish may spread into different bodies of water because specimens captured for pets in one river are often flung back into a different one. There is a potential for ecological damage when crayfish are introduced into nonnative bodies of water (e.g. great Crayfish plague in Europe).

Crayfish as bait

Crayfish covered with zebra mussels
Crayfish are commonly sold and used as bait, either live or with only the tail meat, and are good at attracting channel catfish, largemouth bass, pike and muskie. However, live crayfish may sometimes have their claws removed in order to prevent their keeping fish from biting the hook. Crayfish also easily fall off the hook, so casting should be slow.

The result of using crayfish as bait has led to various ecological problems at times. According to a report done by Illinois State University, on the Fox and Des Plaines Rivers Watershed, "The rusty crayfish (used as bait) has been dumped into the water and its survivors outcompete the native clearwater crayfish." This situation has been repeated elsewhere, as the crayfish bait eliminates native species.

As zebra mussels have also been known to attach themselves to the crayfish bait, this is one of the ways it has spread to different waterways.

Crayfish in history

The Moche people of ancient Perumarker worshipped animals and often depicted crayfish in their art.

Cricoidoscelosus aethus fossil
The oldest fossil records of crayfish ever found, are in Australia, and are 115 million years old.


  1. Needon, Christoph; Petermann, Johannes; Scheffel, Peter and Scheiba, Bernd. Plants and Animals (Pflanzen und Tiere). Leipzig: Urania-Verlag, 1971.
  2. Pollock, Steve. Eyewitness Ecology. New York, United States: Dorling Kindersley Publishing, Inc., 2005.
  7. How to Season a Crawfish Boil.
  9. Berrin, Katherine & Larco Museum. The Spirit of Ancient Peru:Treasures from the Museo Arqueológico Rafael Larco Herrera. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1997.

Further reading

  • Gilbertson, Lance; Zoology Lab Manual; McGraw Hill Companies, New York; ISBN 0-07-237716-X (fourth edition, 1999)
  • Johnson, Sterling K. and Nathan K. Johnson. 2008. Texas Crawdads. College Station, Texas. ISBN 978-0-9801103-0-2 available from Crawdad Club Designs
  • Walls, Jerry G. "Crawfishes of Louisiana". Baton Rouge, LA. :Florida State University Press, 2009 ISBN 978-0-8071-3409-2

External links

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