Crayfish, also called crawfish, crawdads and mudbugs, are part of the family crustaceans. There are more than 400 different species found throughout North America. Crayfish can range in color from off-white to brown to red but they all have a set of pincers that are used in both feeding and defending themselves. Since crayfish only live an average of two years, the life cycle is short and simple.
Mature crayfish mate in open water. The female will mate with more than one male before making a burrow in which to spawn. During mating, the males' sperm is stored on the underside of the female in the seminal receptacle. Mating usually occurs during the late spring or early summer period.
Before the water levels begin to fall, females typically create a burrow near the edge of the water. The eggs in the ovaries begin to develop and, as the female constructs the burrow, they will mature to be ready to release through the oviducts by the time the burrow is completed. The eggs will be fertilized by the waiting sperm and then attach to the swimmerets found on the underside of the tail.
The eggs must then incubate for approximately three weeks, depending on the temperature. The optimum temperature is 74 degrees F.
Once the eggs hatch, the hatchlings remain attached to the female's swimmerets, usually for a few weeks. During this time, the female with her hatchlings must leave the burrow back to open water so that food is available. If she remains in the burrow and food is scarce, she may eat her young. However, once she goes into open water, the risk of the hatchlings detaching increases.
Crayfish must molt, or shed, its hard exoskeleton to allow for growth. For the juveniles, they will molt frequently as they grow. However, their growth rate is greatly dependent on their environment including the water temperature, dissolved oxygen level, population size and food availability. A crayfish usually molts around 11 times before it reaches sexual maturity.
Once a crayfish reaches sexual maturity, it will cease to grow. Crayfish that are sexually mature will have distinct characteristics including a darker color and larger pincers. Males possess noticeable hooks at the base of the third and fourth pair of walking legs. Females develop the seminal receptacle in which to hold the sperm after mating. Once they reach maturity, the life cycle begins again.
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