Here’s a word for the spelling bee: “Speciose”, of Latin origin, which means “rich in species”, indicates several types of organisms belonging to a single genus. Used in a sentence: “There exist over 500 kinds of crayfish, which indicates that they are speciose.”

It’s not a word you’ll use on the daily, granted, but what a doozy of a fact, right? That sort of statistic normally goes to plants, but it also seems fitting given that the crayfish goes by any number of names, depending on whom you ask.

Some of them even have actual names, like Sebastian—or, in this case, Cranky, as told by our friend Webster Felipe of Pet City.

“I’ve been into keeping crayfish for quite a while now; maybe four years [give or take]. They’re so interesting to keep because of their unique characteristics and ability to survive in low maintenance care. . . As of now, I have more than four pairs of crayfish. The one called Cranky [is kind of my favorite because] he’s huge and always a little grumpy,” says Felipe.

Adaptable

About half of the species we know of thus far live in North America, but they can really be found almost in any place with bodies of freshwater ranging from two to thirty meters deep. (Sometimes, it doesn’t even need to be freshwater; these crustaceans are pretty versatile!)

“Their ideal tank is quite easy,” says Felipe. “They don’t require a complicated set-up. A 10-gallon tank would be ideal for two;. Put some caves for them to hide in; they like when they have lots of caves to hide. [They’re more comfy that way.]”

Despite the obvious strength in numbers, these little guys prefer to keep to themselves, going so far as to burrow in subaqueous sediment—and when you’re dab smack in the lower-middle end of the food chain, staying hidden is pretty crucial.

Even in the substrate, they manage to protect themselves rather well, making little chimney-like structures out of mud where their burrow might meet the surface. This keeps more terrestrial predators like snakes from slithering in and wreaking havoc—no one’s got that kind of time, after all.

Thankfully, these omnivores aren’t super picky; their diet ranges from algae to fish to plant debris. Sometimes, when the mood strikes them, they’ll even go for birds that come too close to the water. With meals like that, it’s no wonder they can reach up to about 16 centimeters (6 inches) in length in freshwater.

But when you’re keeping them, as Felipe does, “Their diet consists of fish pellets and frozen foods like bloodworms; [I give them] mysis shrimps for treats. Sometimes I even give them boiled peas.” Guess you’ve got to have your greens even under the sea!

Mating and molting

Like other crustaceans, crayfish go through periods of molting, shedding their exoskeletons. “Don’t be confused when it looks like your [tank has new occupants],” says Felipe. This happens during their mating season in the spring.

During mating season, male crayfish almost magically take on bigger claws, a longer body, sharper spines, and a more durable exoskeleton—clearly built for fighting off other males for the chance to pass on their genes. But it’s not all that different from human romance, unfortunately: once it’s over and they’ve done what they needed to do, they revert to their more juvenile forms. (If you feel that shade has been thrown, don’t write in.)

Once the female crayfish’s eggs are fertilized, they are then attached to her pleopods (appendages specifically for swimming and, presumably, carrying the kids) where they stay for up to five months. Fresh hatchlings will stick around for another two weeks or so, swimming on their own just to practice. Eventually, they’ll venture out as adults.

They never seem to lose their sense of adventure, either: “They’re so smart; enough that they can escape their own tank [if they feel like it] and recognize who feeds them,” says Felipe. “The challenge is when they start fighting sometimes.”

Adulthood for crayfish isn’t all it’s cracked up to be—literally—because they won’t fully reach maturity until they’ve shed their outer layer at least six times. They make up for this with their ability to regenerate limbs, which is undoubtedly cool on pretty much any level. But then, there are few things about these creatures that aren’t cool: they can live virtually anywhere, change size, remember human faces… all we’re saying is, you might want to watch your back.

This appeared in Animal Scene magazine’s November 2019 issue.

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