Procambarus clarkii
Procambarus clarkii
(red swamp crayfish)
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Procambarus clarkii (Girard, 1852)

Common name: red swamp crayfish

Synonyms and Other Names: Red swamp crayfish/crawfish, Louisiana crayfish/crawfish, Cambarus clarkii Girard, 1852

Taxonomy: available through www.itis.govITIS logo

Identification: The red swamp crayfish is typically dark red, with elongate claws (chelae) and head, a triangular rostrum tapering anteriorly without a central keel, reduced or absent spines on the side of the shell (carapace) between the head and thorax, and a linear to obliterate dorsal surface between the 2 carapace plates (areola), which converge (Boets et al. 2009, GISD 2011, NatureServe 2011). The first walking leg (cheliped) bears bright red rows of bumps (tubercles) on its side (mesial) margin and palm.

In reproductively mature males, hooks are present on the third segment (from the base; the ischia) of the third and fourth pairs of walking legs, and the first swimmeret (pleopod) of ends in four projections (terminal elements), with the most anterior terminal end (cephalic process) of this sperm transfer structure rounded with a sharp angle on the outer (caudodistal) margin, which lacks “hairs” (setae) below its tip. Setae on the anterior surface of the pleopod, closest to the terminal elements, have strong angular shoulders. The right pleopod is wrapped around the side, such that it appears reduced or absent, and possesses a spur on the inner margin on its fifth joint (carpopodite) (WDFW 2003). Strong spines project from the inner face of the sixth joint (propodite); “knots” are present on the dorsal face or this joint (Boets et al. 2009).

Juveniles are not red and are difficult to distinguish from other Procambarus species (Boets et al. 2009).

Size: Adults range in length from 5.5 to 12 centimeters (or 2.2 to 4.7 inches) and may attain weights in excess of 50 grams in 3 to 5 months (GIS 2011, Hentonnen and Huner 1999).

Native Range: Gulf coastal plain from the Florida panhandle to Mexico; southern Mississippi River drainage to Illinois (Hobbs 1989, Taylor et al. 2007).

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Nonindigenous Occurrences: Collected in a swamp in Kenai, Alaska (R. Piorkowski, Alaska Fish and Game, pers. comm.); established in San Francisco Bay, California (Ruiz et al. 2000) and collected from Sweetwater River in the San Diego National Wildlife Refuge (Cohen and Carlton 1995); established in Delaware (Gherardi and Daniels 2004); reported from Hawaii (Benson and Fuller 1999, Gutierrez 2003) and Idaho (Benson and Fuller 1999, Mueller 2001); collected from areas of the Dead River near Lake Michigan and in the North Branch of the Chicago River, Illinois; relatively rare but documented tributaries of Lake Michigan in the area of the Grand Calumet River in northern Indiana, with collections from Lake Michigan in 2000 (Simon 2001); established in Chesapeake Bay and all 14 watersheds of the Coastal Plain of Maryland (Kilian et al. 2009, Ruiz et al. 2000); reported from Nevada (Benson and Fuller 1999); found on Long Island and in the lower Hudson River system, New York; established in the Neuse, Tar-Pamlico, Yadkin-Pee Dee, and Cape Fear river basins of North Carolina (Benson and Fuller 1999, Fullerton and Watson 2001); established and slowly spreading in the Sandusky Bay, Ohio area, with the first known collection dating back to 1967 and subsequent expansion to Bay, Rice, and Riley Township waterways connecting to Muddy Creek Bay and Margaretta and Townsend Twp tributaries of Lake Erie (R. Thoma, Midwest Biodiversity Institute, pers. comm.); established in Oregon, South Carolina, Utah, and Virginia (Benson and Fuller 1999, Mueller 2001); established or collected from several lakes in Washington (Mueller 2001, WDFW 2003); and established in a private subdivision pond in Germantown, Wisconsin from 2009-2016, reported as eradicated in 2016 (Behm 2009, Bunk and Van Egeren 2016); reported from the Missouri River in Nebraska, just below Gavins Point Dam in 2016 (S. Schainost, pers. comm.).

Ecology: This species lives in a variety of freshwater habitats, including rivers, lakes, ponds, streams, canals, seasonally flooded swamps and marshes, and ditches with mud or sand bottoms and plenty of organic debris (Huner and Barr 1991). Procambarus clarkii also frequently colonizes rice fields, irrigation channels, and reservoirs (Correia and Ferreira 1995, Gherardi et al. 1999). It exhibits considerable ecological plasticity and is tolerant of a range of salinities (<12 ppt, 2-3 ppt for reproduction), pH (5.8-10), oxygen levels (>3 ppm), temperatures (as long as water in burrows neither freezes nor exceeds 95°C), and pollution levels (Huner and Barr 1991). Studies of the red swamp crayfish invasion in Europe suggest that it tends to prefer areas of lower flow velocity and low elevation; in central and southern Europe, it has established in warm, shallow natural and agricultural wetlands while in northern Europe, it can be found in small permanent ponds free of fish predation (Cruz and Rebelo 2007, Henttonen and Huner 1999).

The red swamp crayfish is a physical ecosystem engineer, primarily constructing simple, two-crayfish burrows consisting of a single opening, which may be covered with a mud plug or chimney to reduce evaporative loss further from the water’s edge, and a tunnel widening to an enlarged terminal chamber (Correia and Ferreira 1995, Huner and Barr 1991, Jaspers and Avault 1969). In periods of drought or elevated temperatures, these burrows can extend 40-90 cm down to water table (Ingle 1997). Burrow density is typically greatest in areas with fine sediments and lowest in areas of sand, gravel, or cobble (Barbaresi et al. 2004). Where present, Myriophyllum sp., fallen logs, and other vegetation may encourage greater burrow density (Correia and Ferreira 1995). Water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes) has also provided habitat for this crayfish in other introduced populations (Smart et al. 2002).

Like most crayfish, the red swamp crayfish is an opportunistic omnivore, consuming plant material, animals, detritus, and sediment (Alcorlo et al. 2004; Anastácio et al. 2005; Correia 2003; Gherardi and Barbaresi 2007, 2008; Gutiérrez-Yurrita et al. 1998; Hobbs 1993; Ilheu and Bernardo 1993; Pérez-Bote 2004; Smart et al. 2002). In terms of feeding preference, a few trends have emerged from studies of native and introduced populations. Plants and/or detritus tend to be consumed in greatest frequency and volume, with plant consumption highest in summer and detritus feeding intense year round (Correia 2003, Gherardi and Barbaresi 2008). It appears that crayfish may exhibit selectivity for particular plants but not among animal prey (Gherardi and Barbaresi 2007). The animal constituents of the red swamp crayfish diet tend to be dominated by insects (particularly chironomids), other crayfish, mollusks (snails), and fish (Ilheu and Bernardo 1993, Pérez-Bote 2004). Juveniles consume more animals than adults, which exhibit an ontogenic shift in diet to plants and detritus, but cannibalism is most apparent in adults and preadults (Correia 2003, Pérez-Bote 2004). Fish is also an important staple of the adult winter diet, and males may eat fish in a higher proportion than do females. This may be attributed to large claw size in some males and potentially also due to higher male mobility during the mating season (Ilheu and Bernardo 1993, Pérez-Bote 2004). However, the nutritional benefit of carnivory may be outweighed by the cost of active predation, leading to increased herbivory or detritivory in the field (Ilheu and Bernardo 1993). Overall consumption is highest in the fall and winter (Pérez-Bote 2004).

The life cycle of the red swamp crayfish is relatively short, with an onset of sexual maturity occurring in as few as two months and a total generation time of four and a half months (Huner and Barr 1991). Breeding typically taking place in the fall, though in warmer, wetter regions, there may be a second reproductive period in the spring. This species exhibits high fecundity: a 10 cm female can produce as many as 500 eggs, while a smaller female produces around 100 eggs (GISD 2011, Huner and Barr 1991). Egg production make take as short a period as six weeks, followed by a three-week period of incubation and maternal attachment and an additional eight weeks until egg maturation (GISD 2011). Procambarus clarkii females incubating eggs or carrying young may be found year-round, which contributes greatly to the success and abundance of this species, but optimal temperatures are 21-27°C; growth is inhibited below 12°C (Ackefors 1999, GISD 2011). Recently hatched crayfish remain in the burrow with their mother as long as eight weeks and must molt twice before being self-sufficient (Hunter and Barr 1991). Due to the cannibalistic nature of conspecifics in communal burrows, adult molting often occurs in the open, even in the presence of predatory fish (Hartman and O’Neill 1999). The adult red swamp crayfish exhibits cyclic dimorphism, alternating between sexually active and inactive periods, and in the wild typically does not live longer than two to five years (GISD 2011, Huner and Barr 1991, Smart et al. 2002).

The red swamp crayfish exhibits two types of behaviors—one a wandering phase which involves short peaks of high speed of movement, the other an immobile stage during which it hides in its burrow by day and only comes out at dusk to forage. Breeding male crayfish in the wandering phase may travel as far as 17 km from their site of origin within four days (GISD 2011). Nocturnal activity in the stationary phase does not appear to be driven by predatory avoidance (many of red swamp crayfish predators are also nocturnal) or prey capture (mostly herbivorous; Gherardi et al. 2000).

Means of Introduction: Nonnative populations in the United States are likely to have resulted as a release from aquaculture or from the aquarium trade (Simon and Thoma 2006, Thoma and Jezerinac 2000). This species’ striking red color has lead to commercial advertisement as freshwater “lobster” for aquariums and may have sped up the species’ advance on the west branch of the Grand Calumet River in Indiana and Illinois (Simon et al. 2005).

The red swamp crayfish is readily available though the biological supply trade and may be released following classroom or laboratory use (Larson and Olden 2008). It is also popular among anglers as bait for largemouth bass (WDFW 2003). Intended disposal via the sanitary system (being flushed down toilets) is likely to be ineffective, as many P. clarkii has been seen in urban zones around waste water treatment areas, having apparently survived treatment (Indiana Biological Survey 2008).

The Sandusky Bay, OH populations likely stem from an attempted introduction to see if they could get a harvestable population established for human consumption (R. Thoma, Midwest Biodiversity Institute, pers. comm.). This species is commercially cultured in the southern U.S., particularly in Louisiana, where industry profits exceed $150 million annually and the fishery is an integral part of the state’s culture and economy (McAlain and Romaire 2011). Alternately, there is a remote chance these red swamp crayfish were introduced from infested Ohio State Fish Hatcheries during a fish stocking event (R. Thoma, Midwest Biodiversity Institute, pers. comm.).

Status: Established in coastal waters of Lake Erie and Lake Michigan.

Impact of Introduction:  

Procambarus clarkii has a moderate environmental impact in the Great Lakes.

Procambarus clarkii has the potential for a wide array of environmental impacts, including food web alteration, bioaccumulation of toxic substances, community dominance, competition with native species for food or space, modification of physical-chemical habitat properties, consumption of native plants and algae, and predation on native species (Savini et al. 2010).

The red swamp crayfish has been responsible for dramatic habitat changes (e.g., through burrowing activity) and changes to ecosystem functioning in invaded systems around the world (Gherardi 2007). Procambarus clarkii is a strong competitor with native crayfish species, including the white river crayfish (P. acutus) or the signal crayfish (Pacifastacus leniusculus), and may exclude these species from shelters (Arrignon et al. 1999, Gherardi and Daniels 2004, Mueller 2007). Aggression exhibited by the red swamp crayfish has also been attributed to reduced breeding success among adult California newts and may extend to other amphibians (Gamradt et al. 1997).

Acting as both a shredder and a predator, P. clarkii has the potential to act as a keystone species and dominate energy flow (Pérez-Bote 2004). Red swamp crayfish juveniles can significantly reduce local macroinvertebrate diversity through predation (Correia and Anastácio 2008). Predation on snails and other grazers may lead to increased periphyton biomass relative to macrophytes. In contrast, prey preference for predatory insects promotes grazer populations and instead decreases periphyton density (Alcorlo et al. 2004). The disappearance of newts in California has also been attributed to predation by P. clarkii, particularly on eggs and larvae (Diamond 1996, Gamradt and Kats 1996). Consumption of detritus by P. clarkii can further restructure energy flow (e.g., shortened pathways to top predators, simplified food web structure) through traditional trophic levels in an invaded system (Geiger et al. 2005).

Capable of removing macrophytes from large areas with its cutting feeding behavior (Feminella and Resh 1989, Smart et al. 2002), P. clarkii causes major shifts in habitat heterogeneity and reduces habitat availability for many invertebrates, amphibians, and juvenile fishes (summarized in Alcorlo et al. 2004, Nyström 1999). Herbivory in red swamp crayfish has also been found to have a significant impact on aquatic macrophytes and periphyton (Elser et al. 1994, Lodge 1991, Matthews et al. 1993, Weber and Lodge 1990) and to change the relationships of benthic insects with plants (Hanson et al. 1990, Lodge et al. 1994). Extensive removal of macrophytes is proposed to have led to local extinction of two snails (Lymnaea peregra, L. stagnalis) and three plants (Myriophyllum alterniflorum, Utricularia australis, Ceratophyllym demersum) in Spain (Montes et al. 1993), but direct predation on the snails may have contributed to the snails’ disappearance (Alcorlo et al. 2004). Herbivorous bird populations (e.g., ducks) have also been severely impacted by the Spanish introduction of P. clarkii (Rodríguez et al. 2005). In Kenya, it has been suggested that populations of the water lily Nymphaea nouchalii var. caerulea declined in Lake Naivasha as the result of P. clarkii herbivory (Hofkin et al. 1991, Lowery and Mendes 1977).

The red swamp crayfish builds its burrows at the water’s edge, and collapse is common on soft sediment banks when burrows are abandoned (Barbaresi et al. 2004). Burrowing activity can impact the nesting ground of demersal fish (Lowery and Mendes 1977). Foraging and burrowing behavior in P. clarkii can also lead to changes in water quality and increased nutrient release from sediment, which in turn may induce localized summer cyanobacteria blooms and eutrophic conditions (Angeler et al. 2001, Duarte et al. 1990, Geiger et al. 2005, Nyström et al. 1996, Yamamoto 2010). Alternately, burrowing activity can suspend sediments and increase water turbidity, reducing light penetration and leading to diminished primary production (Anastácio and Marques 1997, Angeler et al. 2001, Rodríguez et al. 2005).

Many crayfish, including P. clarkii, transmit heavy metals among different trophic levels of the food web. Enriched levels of heavy metals or pesticides in crayfish organs or tissues are transferred to consumers (Otero et al. 2003). The red swamp crayfish has also been characterized within its invaded range as a host to high impact parasites (Mastitsky et al. 2010). It harbors numerous flatworm parasites that may be passed on to vertebrates and can carry the crayfish plague fungus (Aphanomyces astaci) as a chronic or latent infection (Huner and Barr 1991, Longshaw 2011). Procambarus clarkii has been implicated in the spread of this fungus to native crayfish in Europe following initial introduction by the signal crayfish (Barbaresi and Gherardi 2000, Mastitsky et al. 2010). North American crayfish species, however, appear to be resistant to the crayfish plague (Huner and Barr 1991). The white spot syndrome virus, which has caused mass mortalities among shrimp in Europe, can also be carried by P. clarkii (Longshaw 2011).

Procambarus clarkii has a moderate socio-economic impact in the Great Lakes.

The red swamp crayfish is classified as a pest in many countries (Hobbs et al. 1989). Procambarus clarkii has had devastating effects on international rice production, preferentially consuming seedlings following rice field flooding and planting, as well as causing water loss and bank collapse due to its burrowing activity (Anastácio et al. 2000, 2005; Correia and Ferreira 1995). In areas prone to water level fluctuation—such as around dams, levees , or irrigation systems—complex, deep burrows or numerous simple burrows are especially likely to damage these structures through bank destabilization. Where water levels are more constant (e.g., reservoirs, marshes), burrows tend to be shallow and simple (Correia and Ferreira 1995). Foraging and burrowing behavior in P. clarkii can also lead to changes in water quality and increased nutrient release from sediment, which may induce localized summer cyanobacteria blooms and eutrophic conditions (Angeler et al. 2001, Duarte et al. 1990, Geiger et al. 2005, Nyström et al. 1996, Yamamoto 2010).

Predation on fish eggs (e.g., lake trout, Mueller et al. 2006), food competition with commercial fish species, and destruction of fishery nesting and nursing grounds can negatively affect the fishing industry (summarized in Geiger et al. 2005). In Kenya, the red swamp crayfish has been implicated in the destruction of fishing nets and significant reduction in yield due to damaged fish (Lowery and Mendes 1977).

Through accumulation of heavy metals and cyanobacteria toxins (e.g., microcystin), the red swamp crayfish facilitates biomagnification of these harmful materials and their trophic transfer to humans (Gherardi and Panov 2006). In parts of the world, undercooked P. clarkii may transmit parasites to humans, including lung fluke (Paragonimus westermani) and rat lungworm (Angiostrongylus cantonensis) (Matthews 2004). Domestically, Louisiana populations of the red swamp crayfish have been found to harbor another lung fluke, P. kellicoti (Huner and Barr 1991).

Procambarus clarkii has a moderate beneficial effect in the Great Lakes.

While a major commercial fishery exists both domestically (native populations) and abroad (introduced populations; e.g., Ackefors 1999, Barbaresi and Gherardi 2000), a red swamp crayfish fishery has not been established in the Great Lakes. However, the red swamp crayfish is popular in the live trade market. This species’ striking red color has lead to commercial advertisement as freshwater “lobster” for aquariums (Simon et al. 2005). It is also popular among anglers as bait for largemouth bass (WDFW 2003) and is readily available though the biological supply trade (Larson and Olden 2008).

Procambarus clarkii has the potential to serve as a new food source in invaded ecosystems (Savini et al. 2010). In Europe, it has been suggested that high densities of the red swamp crayfish may lead to greater numbers of herons, egrets, and cormorants (Barbaresi and Gherardi 2000, Rodríguez et al. 2005).

The red swamp crayfish has been proposed for use as a bioindicator of heavy metals (As, Cd, Cr, Pb, Hg, Ni) and organic compounds (as found in fertilizers and pesticides, for example) due to its propensity to accumulate these environmental contaminants (Kouba et al. 2010, Richert and Sneddon 2007). Furthermore, this species may be used in biological control activities. It actively predates chironomid larvae, a rice pest (Correia and Anastácio 2008). In Kenya, P. clarkii consumes and competes with the snail vector of schistosomiasis and has thus been used there as a biological control agent (Lodge et al. 2005).

Remarks: Michigan Department of Natural Resources discovered in July 2015 that anglers are purchasing red swamp crayfish from food markets and using them as live bait. Several dead, red swamp crayfish were found near a popular fishing site in Lake Macatawa in Ottawa County, Michigan. To respond to this discovery, Michigan DNR will set traps and seines in Lake Macatawa. 

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Author: Nagy, R., A. Fusaro, and W. Conard

Revision Date: 11/17/2016

Citation Information:
Nagy, R., A. Fusaro, and W. Conard. 2017. Procambarus clarkii. USGS Nonindigenous Aquatic Species Database, Gainesville, FL. Revision Date: 11/17/2016

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Citation information: U.S. Geological Survey. [2017]. Nonindigenous Aquatic Species Database. Gainesville, Florida. Accessed [5/1/2017].

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