Tag Archives: crustaceans

Weekly Puzzler Answer #28

crayfish-Years ago I was conducting a river study with a group of middle school students in Middleburgh, New York when we caught this crayfish. It was hard to miss the way the crayfish held its tail curled back around its body, obviously trying to cover something. When we looked more closely and moved the tail out of the way, I was thrilled to see all of these tiny dots, which I knew to be crayfish eggs but had never seen before. The fertilized eggs are attached to the abdomen and the females will carry them like this for 2-10 weeks depending on the temperature of the water. A female in this condition is said to be “in berry,” because the tiny eggs resemble berries. She can have anywhere from 10-800 eggs! Females “in berry” are often found in May or June. When the eggs finally hatch into mini crayfish, the new babies will continue to be attached to the abdomen by a thin stalk. When they shed their skins for the first time, they will lose the connection with the female but remain with her for up to 2 weeks before leading independent lives.

Crayfish, like their deep sea cousins, the lobster, are crustaceans. Like all invertebrates they lack a backbone, but have a hard exoskeleton. There are 500 species of crayfish in the world, with more than half of those living in the United States. There are no crayfish in Africa or Antarctica and not all crayfish live in water, though certainly most do. There is at least one kind of crayfish that dwell in caves. These are colorless and have no eyes. The world’s largest freshwater invertebrate is the crayfish that live in Australia; these can grow up to 31 inches long and live for 40 years! Most crayfish in the wild do not live this long.

Most crayfish live in freshwater, hiding during the day under rocks and other debris or burrowing down under leaves or mud. When darkness falls, they emerge to feed. Crayfish are omnivores, meaning they eat both plant and animal matter. Though they will take live prey such as a minnow or other aquatic invertebrates if the opportunity arises, many feed mostly on decaying plant and animal material.

This little blue heron snagged a crayfish!

This little blue heron snagged a crayfish!

Many animals feed on crayfish, including birds, turtles, otters and raccoons. In places such as France and the southern United States, eating crayfish is not uncommon. Louisiana produces (for eating!) around 100 million pounds of crayfish each year!

crayfish-024Like other invertebrates, crayfish, also called crawdads, grow by molting, or shedding their old skin and replacing it with a new one. To reclaim the calcium and phosphates, they will eat their old skin. After 6-10 molts, they reach sexual maturity. Crayfish have four pairs of walking legs and four pairs of swimming legs. They also have two pair of antennae and a pair of claws or pinchers that they use for cutting and capturing food, attack and defense. If they lose a claw or leg, they can regenerate a new one. Crayfish have eyes on movable stalks and can move these eyes independently.

Some crayfish dig burrows using their claws and tails. They will extract mud from underground and create a “chimney” at the entrance. This hides the burrow and protects them against snakes and other predators. If you are walking along a river and see a bunch of piles of mud, this could be from the burrows of crayfish.

Have you ever caught a crayfish? If so, you might know that they tend to move backwards quickly when threatened from the front. If you want to hold one, grab it right on the middle of its body, behind the pinchers. This way, they crayfish cannot grab you with its claws. Have you ever been pinched by one? I have! And it’s not as bad as it might seem. The big crayfish can pinch pretty hard but it’s not even close to being as painful like a yellow jacket sting. It just kind-of pinches a little! If you immerse the crayfish and limb that’s being pinched into water, the crayfish will usually let go and dart off to safety.crayfish-0090


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What is a Fairy Shrimp?

puzzler-Last week’s weekly puzzler was an animal called a Fairy Shrimp. I know plenty of people who would say, “what the heck is a fairy shrimp?” I was once in that group too, but an experience working as assistant curator at a small nature center years ago in upstate NY opened my eyes to this fascinating creature.

Maybe I can open your eyes too to this interesting creature. Here are 8 facts about fairy shrimp:

1. Fairy shrimp inhabit vernal or ephemeral wetlands. These are temporary bodies of water that often dry up in the summer or fall and remain waterless until the following spring when rains and/or ice melt fills them up again.  This means that if you are walking through the woods in the fall, you might not even know you are passing a vernal pond, but if you returned in the spring, it might look completely different –and sound different too, considering all the animals who may be present. (Such as wood frogs, spring peepers, yellow spotted salamanders to name a few)

2. Fairy shrimp are relatives of lobsters and crabs. They are all crustaceans. Crustaceans are a kind of invertebrate, meaning they lack a backbone. Insects, spiders, snails, worms are other examples of invertebrates.

3. Fairy shrimp swim upside-down as they move through the water, filter feeding on algae and plankton.

4. Fairy shrimp have an amazing lifecycle, necessary since their pond may be dry for several months of the year. What I thought was most interesting is that females lay two different kinds of eggs–winter eggs and summer eggs. Winter eggs are called cysts and remain down in the mud at the bottom of the pond throughout the winter, until the pond has water again. This could be months, but it could also be years! Some fairy shrimp eggs in a lab hatched 15 years later! The winter eggs might be blown by the wind or carried away by an animal who has eaten them and will then poop them out in a different place. The eggs remain intact, despite traveling through the digestive tract of the other animal!

Summer eggs hatch out in about 16 days and then the fairy shrimp reaches sexual maturity at 41 days. The females will then lay 10-150 tiny eggs, with 22 being about the average. Depending on the temperature of the water, the eggs will hatch into mini fairy shrimp 16 days later.

5. Fairy shrimp are 1/2 to 1 inch long. They have large compound eyes, two pair of antenna, a long segmented tail, and 11-17 pairs of leaf-like appendages for swimming and respiration.

6. The color of fairy shrimp vary according to the food supply in the pond. It can be reddish, pink, even green or gray. All the fairy shrimp in that pond will be the same color, but those in another pond may be a different shade. (Fairy shrimp are filter feeders, eating algae and plankton.)

7. When the pond gets water in the spring, the eggs usually hatch out in around 30 hours. 

8. Fairy shrimp are eaten by lots of other animals! Including frogs and salamanders, birds and other invertebrates.

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Weekly Puzzler Answer #6

puzzler-This indeed is a fascinating creature, but likely not one most people have ever seen or heard about. That’s because in addition to being tiny–1/2 to 1 1/2 inches long, it is a critter that can be found only in ephemeral (temporary) bodies of water. It is related to lobsters and crabs–a kind of  fresh water crustacean.

Its life cycle is truly amazing, from the way its color varies to the length of time its eggs can remain dormant. What affects its color? What do they eat? How do they survive the winter? What is a winter egg and how does it differ from a summer egg? How many days from hatching until they reach adulthood? How many years did some eggs survive in captivity?

All this and more will be discussed in my Creature Feature for this week, published on Mondays. CLICK HERE to read more.




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