Virile crayfish are popular bait for anglers who fish Ozarks streams. The virile crayfish serves as prey for more than 200 aquatic, terrestrial, and avian animals and, thus are valuable food items for a number of food chains.
Species: Virile crayfish (also called the northern crayfish
Scientific name: Faxonius virilis
Nicknames: Crawdad, crawfish
Claim to fame: Virile crayfish are the most commonly found species of crayfish in the Ozarks and throughout much of Missouri. Crayfish have gained prominence in the Ozarks for several reasons. One is that they are popular bait for anglers who fish Ozarks streams. The virile crayfish serves as prey for more than 200 aquatic, terrestrial, and avian animals and, thus are valuable food items for a number of food chains. As far as consumption by humans is concerned, they don’t receive as much publicity as a food item as their larger cousins harvested from commercial farms in Louisiana. However, Ozarks crayfish can be tasty table fare for those with adventurous palates. (Check the Wildlife Code of Missouri for regulations pertaining to crayfish.)
Species status: The native range of the virile crayfish in Missouri was all of the state’s prairie regions in the northern and western parts of the state, as well as the northern and western border of the Ozarks plateau. However, due to accidental bait-bucket introductions, virile crayfish can now be found throughout most of Missouri.
First discovered: The first scientific description of the virile crayfish was written in 1870 by the German entomologist Hermann August Hagen.
Family matters: Virile crayfish belong to the Cambaridae family of crustaceans. This is the most abundant of the world’s three crayfish families (Astacidae and Parastacidae are the other two), containing more than 70 percent of the world’s freshwater crayfish species. Crayfish are arthropods and, thus, are in the same phylum as spiders and insects. However, crayfish are more closely related to shrimps, crabs, lobster and other marine crustaceans in the order Decapoda, meaning “10-legged.” The northern crayfish is one of 36 crayfish species found in Missouri.
Length: The virile crayfish is one of the largest species found in Missouri, measuring between 1.8 inches and 4.9 inches in length.
Diet: Virile crayfish, which are primarily nocturnal, feed on a variety of plant and animal material, both living and dead.
Weight: Not available
Distinguishing characteristics: Virile crayfish are large reddish-brown or greenish-brown creatures with prominent yellow knobs along the inner margin of their pincers. The pincers, technically known as chelipeds, are the best-known feature of all crayfish. Pincers (or “pinchers” as they’re sometimes called) assist crayfish in capturing food, self-defense and in social interaction.
Life span: Approximately three years
Habitat: Virile crayfish appear primarily in streams and are most abundant in those waterways that are fertile, warm, and moderately turbid and have abundant cover in the form of slab rock, logs and organic debris.
Life cycle: Virile crayfish eggs are laid in mid-March to mid-April. Young are produced from mid-May until mid-June. Females construct special tunnels in which mating and subsequent care of the eggs and young take place. Maturity in the virile crayfish is not reached until the second year after the creature goes through a series of molts.
Francis Skalicky is the media specialist for the Missouri Department of Conservation’s Southwest Region.