Crustacean Facts

Scientific Name: Crustacea

Red rock crab (Grapsus grapsus), a type of crustacean
Juergen Ritterbach/Digital Vision/Getty Images

Crustaceans are some of the most important marine animals. Humans rely heavily on crustaceans for food. They are, of course, an important prey source for marine life in the ocean food chain as a prey source for a variety of animals, including whales, fish, and pinnipeds.

Fast Facts: Crustaceans

  • Scientific Name: Crustacea
  • Common Name(s): Crabs, lobsters, barnacles, and shrimp
  • Basic Animal Group: Invertebrate
  • Size: From 0.004 inches to over 12 feet (Japanese spider crab)
  • Lifespan: One to ten years
  • Diet: Omnivore
  • Habitat: Throughout the oceans, in tropical to frigid waters; in freshwater streams and estuaries and in groundwater
  • Population: Unknown
  • Conservation Status: Many crustaceans are extinct, extinct in the wild, or endangered or critical. Most are classified Least Concern.

More diverse than any group of arthropods, crustaceans are third or second in abundance of all categories of animal life after insects and vertebrates. They occur in inland and ocean waters from the Arctic to the Antarctic as well as from elevations in the Himalayas up to 16,000 feet to well below sea level.

Flaming Reef Lobster


Crustaceans include commonly-known marine life such as crabs, lobsters, barnacles, and shrimp. These animals are in the Phylum Arthropoda (the same phylum as insects) and Subphylum Crustacea. According to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, there are over 52,000 species of crustaceans. The largest crustacean is the Japanese spider crab, at over 12 feet long; and the smallest are microscopic in size.

All crustaceans have a hard exoskeleton, which protects the animal from predators and prevents water loss. However, exoskeletons can't grow as the animal inside them grows, so crustaceans are forced to molt as they grow larger. Crustaceans typically expand their bodies almost immediately, increasing by 40–80 percent. The molting process takes between a few minutes to several hours. During molting, a soft exoskeleton forms underneath the old one and the old exoskeleton is shed. Since the new exoskeleton is soft, this is a vulnerable time for the crustacean until the new exoskeleton hardens.

Many crustaceans, such as the American lobster have a distinct head, a thorax, and an abdomen. However, these body parts aren't distinct in some crustaceans, such as the barnacle. Crustaceans have gills for breathing.

Crustaceans have two pairs of antennae. They have mouths made up of one pair of mandibles (which are eating appendages behind the crustacean's antennae) and two pairs of maxillae (mouthparts located after the mandibles).

Most crustaceans are free-ranging, like lobsters and crabs, and some even migrate long distances. But some, like barnacles, are sessile—they live attached to a hard substrate most of their lives.

Lady Elliot Island


  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Arthropoda
  • Subphylum: Crustacea
  • Classes: (According to the World Register of Marine Species (WoRMS):
    • Branchiopoda (branchiopods)
    • Cephalocarida (horseshoe shrimp)
    • Malacostraca (the class that includes decapods—crabs, lobsters, and shrimps)
    • Maxillopoda (which includes copepods and barnacles)
    • Ostracoda (seed shrimp)
    • Remipedia (remipedes)
    • Pentastomida (tongue worms)

Habitat and Range

If you're looking for crustaceans to eat, look no further than your local grocery store or fish market. But seeing them in the wild is almost as easy. If you'd like to see a wild marine crustacean, visit your local beach or tide pool and look carefully under rocks or seaweed, where you might find a crab or even small lobster hiding. You might also find some small shrimp paddling around. 

Crustaceans live in freshwater plankton and benthic (bottom-dwelling) habitats, and can also be found residing in groundwater near rivers and in caves. In temperate locations, small streams support some crayfish and shrimp species: Species richness in inland waters is highest in fresh water, but there are species that live in salt and hypersaline environments.  

To protect themselves from predators, some crustaceans are night hunters; others stay in protected shallow slack-water locations. Rare and geographically isolated species are found in karst caverns, some of which are blind and unpigmented. 

Diet and Behavior

With thousands of species, there is a wide variety of feeding techniques among crustaceans. Crustaceans are omnivores, although some species eat algae and others like crabs and lobsters are predators and scavengers of other animals, feeding on those that are already dead. Some, like barnacles, remain in place and filter plankton from the water. They will also eat their own species, newly molted individuals, young or injured members. Some even change their diets as they mature.

How Do Crustaceans Reproduce?

Crustaceans are primarily dioecious—made up of male and female sexes—and therefore reproduce sexually, but there are sporadic species among the ostracods and brachiopods that reproduce by hermaphroditism, parthenogenesis, or gonochory. 

In general, crustaceans are polyandrous—mating more than once in the same breeding season—and are fertilized within the female. Some may begin the process immediately, other crustaceans such as crayfish store the spermatozoa for many months. Females keep embryos within their bodies in a brood pouch, externally in an ovisac, or by gluing them to their legs. 


  • Coulombe, Deborah A. "The Seaside Naturalist." New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984.
  • Martinez, Andrew J. 2003. Marine Life of the North Atlantic. Aqua Quest Publications, Inc.: New York
  • Myers, P. 2001. "Crustacea" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web.
  • Thorp, James H., D. Christopher Rogers, and Alan P. Covich. "Chapter 27 - Introduction to “Crustacea." Thorp and Covich's Freshwater Invertebrates (Fourth Edition). Eds. Thorp, James H. and D. Christopher Rogers. Boston: Academic Press, 2015. 671–86.
  • WoRMS. 2011. Crustacea. World Register of Marine Species.