Crayfish of the world united

by Sammy De Grave, head of research

How many species of crayfish can you name? Not many, or perhaps none? Well today, for the first time, a list of all the species of crayfish in the world has been published, thanks to a collaborative effort between Professor Keith Crandall at George Washington University and Dr Sammy De Grave, head of research here at the Museum.

The new list draws together much recent work and gives biologists access to a single, comprehensive summary of all the recognised species of crayfish for the first time. The new classifications group crayfish into 669 species, 38 genera, and five families, with two superfamilies corresponding to the Northern and Southern hemispheres.

Fallicambarus devastator. Image: Chris Lukhaup

On the occasion of this taxonomic triumph it seems like a good opportunity to take a look at some interesting crayfish from around the world.

Outside biological taxonomy, crayfish are much better known as a source of food. They are eaten worldwide, but especially in the southern US, Australia, and Europe, where the Red Swamp Crayfish (Procambarus clarkii) is most commonly on the menu. As a result, the Red Swamp Crayfish has been introduced into several countries and has out-competed the local species.

Several other species are also known as invaders. The Signal Crayfish (Pacifastacus leniusculus), native to North America, is now very abundant in Europe, and is out-competing the native Noble Crayfish (Astacus astacus).

The Noble Crayfish (Astacus astacus), above, is native to Europe, but is being out-competed by the introduced Signal Crayfish (Pacifastacus leniusculus). Image: Chris Lukhaup

Another remarkable crayfish is the Marmorkrebs, a species which still has no official taxonomic name. It was first noticed in the aquarium trade in Germany in the 1990s, but no natural populations are known. But the really interesting thing about this species is that all known individuals are female: it is parthenogenetic, which means the females reproduce from eggs without fertilisation – no males involved!

The Marmorkrebs crayfish has no official taxonomic name and is parthenogenetic – all individuals are female, genetically identical and reproduce without males. Image: Chris Lukhaup

Unfortunately, Marmorkrebs has escaped from aquaria in several countries, and is outcompeting local species due to its fast reproduction. Of most concern is its occurrence in Madagascar, where it competes for food and space with the endemic Astacoides crayfish, a much larger but slower-growing species.

Astacopsis madagascariensi, above, is being out-competed in Madagascar by the Marmorkrebs, which has escaped from several aquaria. Image: Chris Lukhaup

The Tasmanian Giant Crayfish (Astacopsis gouldi) is considered to be the largest freshwater invertebrate on the globe. Although its size has declined in recent years due to over fishing, historical specimens weighed up to 6kg and could reach 80-90 cm in length.

The completion of the new world crayfish list allows for further refinements to the conservation status of the animals too. Current Red List assessments show that 32 per cent of crayfish are already thought to be threatened with extinction, a similar number to freshwater shrimps and crabs.

It is really exciting to finally have a single source for the world’s freshwater crayfish taxonomy. Such a resource will impact a wide variety of fields that rely on crayfishes as study organisms. We hope it will also advance conservation efforts of these keystone species of highly endangered freshwater ecosystems.
– Professor Keith Crandall, George Washington University

The paper, An updated classification of the freshwater crayfishes (Decapoda: Astacidea) of the world, with a complete species list, is published today in the Journal of Crustacean Biology.

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