Adult vernal crayfish are rusty red with a blackish wedge-shaped central stripe along the length of the abdomen. The carapace is smooth and is separated at the middle by a narrow space (areola). The rostrum (pointy, noselike structure between the eyes) is broad, lacks a central troughlike depression, and lacks lateral notches or spines near its tip. The pincers are moderately long and slender.
Similar species: Other similar crayfish within the range of the species are the red swamp crawfish and the White River crawfish. These species have a narrower rostrum (often with lateral spines) and a granular (roughened) carapace.
Adult length: about 1¾ to 3 inches.
The vernal crayfish occurs in the lowlands of southeastern Missouri as far north as Bollinger County. Most records are concentrated along the Ozark border in Ripley, Butler, and Stoddard counties.
Habitat and Conservation
"Vernal" means "springtime." In February and March, when water levels are high, this crayfish is found in shallow, seasonally flooded swamps, sloughs, and other depressions. It avoids flowing-water habitats. As water levels recede in late spring and early summer, it retreats into burrows, not to be seen again until the next wet-weather period.
Crayfish are generally omnivores, eating a wide variety of plant and animal materials.
A species of conservation concern in Missouri. In our state, the distribution of this species is centered in the least disturbed areas of our Bootheel swamps, and it was probably more widely distributed before that part of Missouri was ditched and drained. This species' range extends southward on both sides of the Mississippi River as far as eastern Alabama and northern Louisiana.
The appearance of small juveniles in January and February probably means that reproduction occurs in the fall. The life span apparently is about two years. “Vernal” means springtime and refers to the life cycle, since this crayfish stays in burrows most of the year and is usually only seen in early spring.
In addition to feeding many types of wildlife, crayfish provide food for many species that humans hunt and fish. Crayfish commonly serve as fish bait, and many people eat crayfish, too. Crayfish are fascinating, colorful creatures and are part of our rich native heritage.
Crayfish are an important link in the food chain between plants and other animals, breaking down plant materials that are resistant to decay. Crayfish in turn are an important food for many other animals. Presence of crayfish in a stream or pond usually indicates good water quality.