The Secret Life of Crawfish

How fortunate we are. We’re in the middle of crawfish season which is in the middle of Lent. For us mudbug-loving Cajuns of PoV country and all our out-of-town converts, it’s admittedly not much of a sacrifice to abstain from meat on Fridays and Holy Days when you have crawfish available and when you consider it a seafood. Far be it from me to remind folks that crawfish are freshwater animals and not really “food from the sea.” They’re more a “swampfood” or a “pondfood” than a seafood. But closer be it from me to share other information about the official State Crustacean of Louisiana.

After a spicy and engorging meal of boiled crawfish with friends and family, you’ll (hopefully) find yourself struggling with soap and water to remove crawfish boil spice, stain, and aroma from your hands. And you’ll ask yourself why? After all, it’s not so socially unacceptable if everyone is stained and smelly, right? A better reason, then, would be to get your fingers clean before handling this and then next issue of our magazine wherein you’ll find revealed on these keepsake pages secrets of the lives of crawfish that you always wanted to know but were afraid to ask.

Crawfish are found in nearly all corners of the world. Not all corners of the world eat them, however. In fact, some may actually eat these swamp dwellers only in corners, hidden from the less muddy entrées. Among the 500 different species around the world, crawfish range in size from the 1-inch long Tenuibranchiurus glypticus to the giant Australian river crawfish, Astacopsis gouldi. How big is giant? Imagine driving up to an old gas station refurbished as a seafood market along a bayou highway to buy a 40-lb sack and getting only four crawfish. That’s how big Astacopsis is. You’d need a carving knife at your next boil or étouffée—unless it carves you first!

Fortunately, our favorite species here in Louisiana, Procambarus clarkii—the red swamp crawfish—is a much more manageable size. The 2-to-5 inch P. clarkii accounts for 80 percent of all crawfish produced in the U.S. today, and 70 percent of all that is eaten in right here in Louisiana. Historical records show that commercial crop of crawfish was harvested in Louisiana as far back as 1880—23,000 pounds produced and worth about $2000. Today, the crop is 150 million pounds and worth $300 million.

Speaking of historical records, crawfish ancestry is long. Though they won’t find distant relatives by searching like us, they can find relatives fossilized in rocks that are at least 175 million years old. Those rocks are from the days when the continents were different shapes, were actively drifting away from one another, and when dinosaurs roamed them. Take a look at any artist rendering of dinosaurs in the Jurassic Period and you’ll quickly understand why crawfish learned to burrow in the mud.

Not all species of crawfish like to burrow, however, but P. clarkii certainly does. They dig into mud using their legs and mouth for about three feet and then carve out a water-holding living chamber at the bottom. Those little mud chimneys you see in canals and backyards are excavation spoils from their burrowing projects. Crawfish chimneys are useful not only as a nearby place to rid the burrow of excavated mud but also to both confuse hole-seeking ground predators and challenge aggressive lawn-mowing humans. Enterprising golfers and football kickers have also found them useful.

Inside the living chamber is water and a collection of dead leaves and other dead organic matter. Crawfish like to pinch and chew dead and decaying plants and animals. In fact, when our favorite French-named yellow wildflowers are done blooming and shrivel to die, they fall and become a favorite fixture of the crawfish diet.

Speaking of diet, crawfish in hard times eat anything. Ironically the, cob corn, potatoes, sausage, garlic, and lemons you add to a crawfish boil would actually be nibbled by the crawfish if nutrient levels are low in the burrow. What else might they eat? Pour the chianti and call Jodie Foster because lambs will go silent, as you’ll read in Part 2 next month. POV