Why is it that people give the same animal so many different names? Take cougars for example: we call them cougars, mountain lions, pumas, panthers… I thought these were all different animals for the longest time. “Panther” just adds to the confusion, since it also pertains to melanistic jaguars and leopards.
And then there’s crayfish. Why do we need three different super-similar names for crayfish? At least cougar names are diverse. Crawdads, crayfish, and crawfish? Really? Why not just combine them all into crawcraydadfish?
Never mind, that didn’t compress as nicely as I thought it would. I’m just gonna stick with crayfish.
The first time I saw a crayfish, I was confused as to how a lobster had somehow swum its way up to the mountains. While I’m a bit more taxonomically aware nowadays, these little freshwater crustaceans continue to fascinate me; who knew such a neat animal could live in such a common ecosystem? I always thought the rivers were just full of snails, fish and algae. I mean, I still love snails and fish, but river lobsters? That’s cool.
Unfortunately, these unique crustaceans always seem to elude me. In elementary school, I had a friend whose house was on the edge of some woods with a good-sized stream. Like most bodies of water in the area, this stream was full of water striders, minnows and the occasional crayfish. For my friend’s birthday one year, all us kids were given buckets and nets and sent to the stream to see what we could catch. After a few minutes of romping around scooping up minnows, I suddenly found myself staring into the eyes of a big, muddy crayfish.
The crayfish was chilling in a little pool of still water that had collected on the side of the stream. I was standing on the sand at the pool’s edge, so I figured that if I swung my net down fast enough I would be able to catch the watchful crustacean before he got the chance to swim away. I poised my net, and –
KERPLASH! Some other girl at the party charged obliviously across the pool, stirring up mud and leaving the water churning with silt. After a moment the debris settled down and I could see through the water again, but the crayfish had disappeared.
Fortunately, that wasn’t the last time I saw a crayfish, although I still haven’t caught one. My brother did, but he kind of cheated – he bought it at a pet store. Plankton the crayfish lived in a tank with a few catfish and some little zebrafish for a few months on my brother’s shelf. Unfortunately Plankton liked to take a swipe at fish that came too close to him, and one of the zebrafish happened to go missing during his stay (we didn’t catch him in the act, but I think we know what happened). Despite his grumpiness, though, the crayfish was a pretty cool pet – he loved his little plastic barrels, and it was fun to watch him scuttle around on the rocks. Rest in peace, Plankton. You are missed.
Remember when I said I got to learn about mulch lobsters in my biology class? I learned about river lobsters in that class, too, but the means of doing so were considerably less enjoyable. When the class switched to online learning halfway through the semester, I thought that meant I would be spared the various dissections scheduled for our lab.
It did not.
While I did not have to poke and prod the dead organisms myself, I was forced to watch our lab assistants do so on video or risk missing out on valuable information I would need to complete the practical. So, I peered through my fingers and gagged as animal after animal was sliced open for my education: a sea urchin, a worm, a rat, and yes, a crayfish. After enduring said torture, I can now confidently say that I do not want to be a taxidermist. Also, the little legs under the crayfish’s abdomen are called “swimmerets,” which I think is a cute name.
Crayfish, like many arthropods, have plenty of specialized limbs besides just swimmerets. While the swimmerets propel the crustacean through the water and assist in reproduction, the tail pushes the crustacean backwards for a hasty retreat. In fact, whenever you see a crayfish swimming at all, it’s probably moving backwards – these crustaceans typically walk forward on their aptly-named “walking legs,” but rely on swimming for a quick retreat. A crayfish’s pincers, or chelipeds, are used both for defense and capturing prey. Males will also use their chelipeds to spar with one another during mating season, and will regenerate any limbs they lose in battle. Crayfish possess antennae for perceiving the world through taste and touch, and have many more appendages than I’ve mentioned here. Who needs a utility belt if you’ve got a crayfish in your pocket?
…Please don’t actually put a crayfish in your pocket. They have gills. They want to stay in the water.
I think the reason I haven’t seen many crayfish is that they really don’t like to be seen. Not that I blame them – I know plenty of people who enjoy the taste of cooked shellfish as much as I like to observe the living ones. Crayfish avoid most of us by hunting at night, and an off-duty crayfish is pretty hard to spot as well. Some crayfish prefer to hide under river rocks or logs, but others are known to dig burrows in the sand or dirt. These crayfish leave obvious piles of dirt built up around the mouths of their holes, so at least you can find where a crayfish lives even if you don’t see the actual crustacean.
If you haven’t seen a crayfish before, but you live in the southern U.S., you’re in luck – you live in one of the most crayfish-populated areas on the planet! Time to start rummaging through the river rocks; I wish you luck and clear waters.