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Consider the Crawdad

What lessons can we learn from an enterprising decapod?

Recently dubbed the “ultimate survivor” by British biologists, the Louisiana red swamp crawdad and its globe-trotting adventures have made it the poster crustacean for pluck in the face of adversity. As legends go, the American export, a Gulf Coast native, first landed in Africa in the 1960s. Despite harsh conditions, food scarcity, and fierce predators, the swamp crawdad thrived—and today boasts progeny across the continent. In these challenging social and economic times, the crawdad’s superior coping skills have caught the attention of scientists the world over.

Herewith, the latest on key Procambarus clarkii behaviors:

1. Opts for Low Overhead

As noted in their paper, “Leaves and Eats Shoots,” published in PLoS ONE, scientists at Queen Mary, University of London found that swamp crawdads in Kenya’s Lake Navaisha survive heat and drought by burrowing into mud pools formed in the footprints of sunbathing hippos. The safety-conscious crustaceans only surface to feed under cover of darkness.

2. Vacations in Oregon

In a NOAA-funded study of 2,000 science teachers in the U.S. and Canada, Oregon State University researchers discovered that one in four released live crawdads and other lab specimens into the wild. Oregon’s teachers in particular favored Louisiana crawdads for classroom study, procuring their invasive species via mail order.

3. Maintains the Status Quo

Crawdaddy cousin: North America’s signal crayfish, Pacifastacus leniusculus, competes with fishermen in Lake Tahoe, California.


Georgia State University findings revealed that social standing can rewire a crawdad’s nervous system. Touch a low-status crawdaddy out of the blue and it’ll cringe and beat a tail-first retreat. Pull that move on an upper-crust crustacean (one with a coveted social network and food supply) and it'll stay put, brandishing its claws. So predictable: when a crawdad’s luck changes, so does the attitude. But what about the middle class?

4. Eats Sh*t—and Lives!

While Procambarus clarkii dominated Lake Naivasha’s ecosystem for 30 years, the “Leaves and Eats Shoots” study showed that it now kowtows to a common carp, a native of Asia with a penchant for crawdads that took over within a blink of its arrival in the early 2000s. Both species competed (more or less) for the same food—until a drought shrunk the lake, at which point nature’s most resilient champion moved to the mud pools, shifting its appetites to terrestrial plants and hippo dung.