If you live in the U.S., you’ve likely run into a crawdad while swimming in a river or lake or at a restaurant. With 70% of the crawdad population found in U.S. waters, there is a lot to learn about these clawed creatures.
Crawdads are opportunistic omnivores that mostly eat on sunken, decaying organic matter. They may also eat plants, small fish, worms, plankton, algae, prepared vegetables, and other crayfish. When they molt, they’ll eat their old shell for calcium. Some crayfish also filter feed, which is when they take in food particles or small organisms from the surrounding water.
Let’s learn together about the crawdad’s characteristics, their diet, and more.
Table of Contents
The Physical Characteristics of the Crawdads
Crawdads – also called crayfish, crawfish, or freshwater lobsters – have long been mistaken for smaller lobsters. With their pointed “nose”, bulging eyes, and large pair of pincers, it’s easy to mix them up.
While they are closely related to lobsters, they also have their differences. Crawdads are much smaller than lobsters, usually measuring only three to six inches long, whereas lobsters range from eight to 24 inches in length.
Not all crawdads are small, however, as the largest species in the world – although rare – can reach 30 inches in length. The smallest species of crawdad is only 2.4 inches in length.
Belonging to the arthropod family, crawdads have a hard, segmented outer body. On their head, you’ll notice two separate antennae. Their head is fused with their thorax, combining to form a cephalothorax.
The cephalothorax and abdomen make up their body. The abdomen is noticeably divided into six parts.
Crawdads technically have ten legs, but the two front pincers or claws count as two. They can move in any direction. They also have a strong tail that is sometimes used to thrust themselves backward through water, especially when avoiding a predator.
Crayfish are typically dark brown, green, or sandy color. When cooked, they become red.
The Distribution, Habitat & Life Span of the Crawdads
Crawdads are freshwater crustaceans found all around the globe, but they prefer certain spots over others.
The crawdad is primarily found in North America, but you can find some crayfish species around the world. Both the smallest and largest species of the crawdad are found in Australia, while the U.S. homes more than two-thirds of all crawdad species.
The natural habitat of the crawdad includes lakes, rivers, wetlands, swamps, canals, irrigation ditches, and other freshwater sources. They have a high tolerance for changes in water temperature and salinity, allowing them to survive extreme weather conditions in certain parts of the world.
They are freshwater creatures that spend most of their life underneath objects like submerged logs or rocks. Some species can also be found in a series of tunnels that they build. These tunnels have turrets that can be spotted a bit away from the water’s edge.
Crayfish are also able to breathe on both lands and in water. They can survive up to a week on land with normal conditions, or longer if it’s moist and humid enough.
Crayfish usually find partners in spring. The females carry their eggs for four to six weeks internally, then transfer them to their tail until they hatch at the end of the season. Unfortunately, less than half of the eggs will hatch.
As the baby crawdad grows, it will shed and regrow its exoskeleton in a process called molting. It takes about three days for its exoskeleton to grow back, leaving it vulnerable in the meantime. If a crawdad loses a limb, it can grow it back during its next molting phase.
Baby crayfish will molt up to ten times during the first year. Adults will molt three to five times during that second year.
Crawdads only live about two years.
What Do Crawdads Eat?
Wild crayfish eat plants, small fish, worms, insects, plankton, snails, and decomposing matter. When they molt, they’ll also eat their old shell for calcium. Some crayfish filter feed, taking in food particles, plankton, or small organisms like bacteria from the water around them.
Crayfish are mainly nocturnal and are not strong swimmers, which means most of their food will be found or caught at the bottom of the body of water they live in. This makes the majority of their diet decomposing matter, like rotting plants or dead animals that sink to the bottom of a river, lake, swamp, etc.
If they’re lucky enough to catch a small animal, they will rip it apart with their claws. When times are tough and they can’t find an alternative food source, crawdads have even been known to eat one another.
Since crawdads are so adaptable to different foods in the wild, feeding them in captivity is fairly easy. You can feed pet crayfish cat food, hot dogs, fish food (dried krill, mosquito larvae, worms), dead fish, freshwater vegetation, frozen peas, and most prepared vegetables.
Pellet-style foods are also a good option, as they sink to the bottom and are easily found by the crawdads. You can opt for shrimp pellets or fish food.
Since crayfish naturally consume algae or bacterial blooms, they’ll do a good job of snacking and cleaning your aquarium at the same time.
As crawdads grow, they need plenty of protein to healthily molt. Babies eat more frequently than adult crawdads since they need more nutrients and minerals to grow.
In the wild, baby crawdads eat mostly algae. If you have baby crawdads as pets, you can feed them prepared vegetables like lettuce leaves or blanched cabbage leaves. Larger crawdads will eat smaller crayfish as they grow, so be sure to remove larger crawdads from the baby tank as they grow.
How Do Crawdads Eat?
Crawdads are primarily nocturnal, meaning they’ll be out and about the most after dark. They tend to forage, covering many meters of a substrate to find food. They may even search in crevices, under rocks, or in caves.
The crawdad has two pairs of antennae: one short pair and one long pair. The short pair is used to taste food and water. The long pair senses touch, finding food by feeling vibrations nearby. These antennae also help the crawdad avoid predators.
The crawdad’s eyes are made up of thousands of tiny, compound eyes. This allows them to look all around them without having to move.
Once it finds its food, the crawdad will hold it in its pincers, tearing it to shreds as it eats.
How Often and How Much Should You Feed Crawdads?
Baby and young crayfish need to eat daily to grow steadily and strong. You can feed them about ¾ of a pellet per day. If feeding them natural foods, try to stick to small pieces that are ¾ of an inch wide and disperse a few throughout the tank.
As for adult crawdads, you can feed them the same amounts of food but only once every other day. If fed enough, adults can last up to a week without food, although they should be fed more often if in captivity.
Most crayfish will let the food sit on the bottom of the tank until nighttime when they begin to explore. If you feed your crawdads at the same time each day and the crayfish notice that lunchtime is regularly scheduled, you may see them out and about when the time comes.
Don’t overfeed your pets, as the leftover food could pollute the tank and harm the crawdads.
What Not to Feed Crawdads?
Crayfish are not picky eaters and will eat most things you put in the tank. While they can eat live shrimp in the wild, avoid feeling them live or uncooked shrimp as pets. Shrimp are known to carry diseases that can kill crayfish.
If experimenting with a new vegetable, be sure to remove it from the tank if the crayfish don’t eat it after 24 hours or if it starts to decompose excessively. As a good rule of thumb, avoid feeding a crayfish processed human foods, such as sugary sweets, cookies, etc.
Crawdads are unique creatures that live in freshwater bodies of water throughout the world.
Typically half a foot in length, these little guys eat everything from animals to plants to decomposing organic matter. They can filter the feed to take in plankton or bacteria, and they’ve even been seen eating their own molten shells.
For those with crawdads as pets, you can feed them shrimp pellets, freshwater vegetation, prepared vegetables, or other fish food.
What Kind of Vegetables Do Crawdads Eat?
Captive crawdads can eat plenty of vegetables, including lettuce, cabbage, spinach, peas, carrots, and zucchini.
Do Crawdads Eat Worms?
Crawdads enjoy eating worms if one wanders onto their path. You can feed your captive crawdads worms now and again. The protein is especially good for younger crayfish.
Can Crawdads Eat Cat Food?
Crawdads can and will eat most cat food – especially wet cat food. Cat food tends to be high in protein and also includes flavors or ingredients like fish and meats, which attract crayfish.