Detailed Guide to Regeneration in Crustaceans

Detailed Guide to Regeneration in Crustaceans

If you keep crustaceans like crayfish, shrimp, and crabs (including hermit crabs), losing a limb or claw can be a shocking and concerning sight. However, in most cases, there is no need to panic.

Crustaceans have a remarkable ability – they can regenerate lost appendages over successive molts! This natural regrowth capacity allows crustaceans to recover from injuries, predation, and autotomy (self-amputation) in the wild.

In this article, I will provide a description of the different stages of regeneration in crustaceans, what affects it, how long it may last, and what we can do about it to help our pets.

Regeneration in crustaceans remains a long-standing challenge in biological sciences.

Despite the fact that scientists have already been studying the process of regeneration for many decades, they admit that theircurrent knowledge of the molecular mechanisms, such as the endocrine hormones and environmental factors underlying molting and regenerationstill remains limited.

Common Reasons Why Crustaceans May Lose Limbs

1. Autotomy:

This is also called self-amputation. Most crustaceans can deliberately shed a limb by triggering a muscle reflex at a weak “breakage plane” joint.

In nature, this mechanism is used to escape predators or disentangle from traps.

2. Injury:

Crustaceans have fragile limb joints prone to dislocation.Therefore, direct trauma from predators, fighting with conspecifics, or accidents can fracture limbs.

3. Bacterial/Viral Infections:

Shell disease from bacterial or fungal pathogens can degrade the exoskeleton, weakening joints. Some viruses also target connective tissues.

This increases the likelihood of limbs falling off.

4. Failed Molts:

During the molting process, as the old exoskeleton is shed, limbs get tangled or fail to detach properly. Twisting and pulling can accidentally detach legs before the new cuticle hardens.

5. Poor Water Quality (Environment):

Prolonged exposure to suboptimal temperature, humidity, and/or water parameters can corrode and weaken their exoskeleton.

This makes crustaceans more fragile and prone to loss.

6. Nutritional Deficiencies:

Inadequate nutrition, such as lack of calcium, can lead to poor exoskeleton formation. This creates structural weaknesses and affects shell integrity.

7. Abnormal Regrowth:

In some rare cases,a limb may regenerate abnormally or some kinds of defects arise in the new cuticle. This can increase the chances of re-loss after molting.

Preliminary summary:

With proper habitat, good nutrition, ideal water parameters (environment) maintained, and suitable tank mates,limb loss can be minimized in crustaceans.

Nonetheless, knowing the reasons behind limb loss can help pet owners respond appropriately.

Stages of Limb Regeneration in Crustaceans

Detailed Guide to Regeneration in Crustaceans - growth
Credit to NOAA Teacher at Sea Program

According to the study, there are 4 main stages of limb regeneration:

  1. Wound healing
  2. Blastema formation
  3. Cell proliferation/growth
  4. Tissue patterning

I will try to describe all stages in brief and simple language, as the process itself is incredibly complex, and scientists are constantly working on studying it.

1. Wound Healing

  • After limb loss, a protective membrane called the autotomy membrane quickly seals off the wound.
  • Hemocytes (blood cells) are recruited to the injury site releasing clotting factors.
  • Wound healing is initiated by a cascade of complex cellular events, which rapidly repair damaged tissue by activation of wound response genes.

The rapid rate of this process is vital as it ensures that injury to the exoskeleton is repaired quickly, reducing the risk of infection.

2. Blastema Formation

Blastema is a cluster of undifferentiated cells that forms under the wound epidermis. It undergoes morphogenesis to form the missing organ.

The blastema grows in size through the rapid division of cells. Additionally, nerves also start to regenerate into the blastemal (this is needed for later stages).

3. Cell Proliferation/Growth

The blastema expands, forming a visible limb bud containing the regenerating tissues. The limb budcontains folded segments of the regenerating appendage.

Over successive molts, the new limb elongates as cells start to differentiate.

This means the generic cells specialize into the needed cell types like muscle, nerve, bone cells, etc.

4. Tissue Patterning

Blastema cells redifferentiate into the specialized tissues of the new limb.

This means the initially generic blastema cells will transform into specialized cell types needed to form the new limb structure. For example, some cells will differentiate into muscle cells, nerve cells, exoskeleton cells, etc.

Molecular signals, like HOX genes, help guide the positioning and identity of tissues during limb regeneration. These genes are like instructions that tell the cells where to go and what to become (basically, they act like cellular “GPS and job descriptions”).

Note: Think of it like a blueprint that tells the cells how to rebuild the missing limb. As the limb regrows, it takes on a segmented structure and specific orientation, thanks to these signals.

Eventually, the new limb achieves full size and structural match to the original appendage.

What Limbs or Organs Crustaceans Can and Cannot Regenerate?

There are some limitations to regeneration in crustaceans.In addition, the extent of regeneration varies among different species. Nonetheless, in general, crustaceans can regenerate their limbs and even certain organs.

  1. Legs
  2. Claws
  3. Whiskers (Antennae and Antennule).
  4. Eyes

Crustaceans cannot regenerate complex internal organs such as the digestive system, or reproductive organs. They also cannot regenerate such body parts as the head or tail.

It is also important to emphasize that the ability to regenerate may depend on the extent and quality of the injury.

For example, in experiments with crayfish, it has been found that if the eye was surface-damaged (eyes where the retina alone was removed), crayfish could regenerate it. However, if the injury was deep, regeneration was not possible. None of the eyes that were removed at the base showed any evidence of regeneration over the three molts. 

Arthropods like crustaceans (crabs, crayfish, etc.) and insects can regrow appendages or limbs after loss, but cannot regenerate their whole body.

For example, starfish, planaria, flatworms,and hydras can regrow major body parts or even form entirely new organisms from segments.According to scientific research, in order to restore its full body planaria need only 1/279 part of its body!

How Long Does It Take to Regenerate?

Lots of experiments showed thata fully functional appendage usuallyregenerates after 1 – 3 consecutive molts.

Since the regeneration process is directly linked to the molting process, the time of regeneration correlates directly with the time of molting.

Therefore, it is also important to take into account the age of the animal.

Young individuals exhibit rapid growth rates and the regenerating limbs are replaced within several days or weeks. In comparison, adult limb regeneration takes much longer and can be completed in several months to years.

Additionally, younger crustaceans tend to regenerate limbs more efficiently than older individuals. The regenerative capability declines with aging.

How Loss of Limbs Affects Molting Process

In crustaceans (crayfish, hermit crabs, crabs, shrimp, etc.), the rigid and calcified exoskeleton limits their continual growth. Therefore, in order to increase in size, volume, and expand soft tissues, they periodically replace their exoskeleton. This is the molting process.

This process is crucial for a diverse set of biological processes such as growth, development, reproduction, and, of course, regeneration.

It has been found that the loss of any organ or limb in crustaceans leads to a significant reduction in the time between molting periodsas a loss of appendages impairs mobility and survival.

At the same time, if a growing bud is injured or undergoes autotomy throughout the regeneration process, molting is postponed in order to allow time for the secondary bud to grow.

Related articles:

What Regulates Regeneration in Crustaceans?

Molting and regeneration are regulated by several chemical factors, including steroid and neurosecretory hormones.

According to the study, melatonin amplifies the growth of the regenerating limb buds and ultimately increases rates of regeneration.

Interestingly, some chemical cues (so-called inhibitory cues) can inhibit regeneration. For example, nerve cord extract injected at the amputation site slows regeneration. This may allow the crustacean to prioritize regenerating more critical body parts first.

Note: In crustaceans, the main gland that produces hormones that regulate molting and regeneration is the Y-organ (also called the ecdysial gland).The Y-organ works in tandem with the X-organ, which is located in the crustacean eyestalk. The X-organ secretes hormones that regulate or inhibit the Y-organ.

Do Crustaceans Feel Pain When Losing Limbs?

There is ongoing scientific debate about whether crustaceans feel pain.You can read my article on this topic (link below).

However, when considering this topic from the perspective of autotomy, it can be said with some degree of certainty that they do not.

As I have already mentioned, limb autotomy in crustaceans is a reflex. Itoccurs along a specific performed breakage plane. There are no muscles across the breakage plane.As a result, it limitsthe damage and major hemolymph loss.

The performed breakage plane is morphologically specialized and characterized by decreased thickness to enable easy fracture

Related article:

Is It Normal for a Hermit Crab, Crayfish or Shrimp To Lose Legs?

The short answer is yes. It is quite normal for crustaceans like crabs, shrimp, lobsters, and crayfish to lose legs and regenerate them over time.

Just think about it.

  • They can intentionally sever their own limbs through a process called autotomy. This is a defense mechanism to escape predators and survive injuries.
  • The molting cycle allows them to rapidly regenerate new limbs.
  • In most cases, they can survive just fine, even with multiple legs absent.

So, due to their extraordinary regenerative abilities, it is very common and natural for crustaceans to lose and re-grow legs multiple times during their life. A crustacean with missing legs is not abnormal at all.

What to Do If Your Hermit Crab or Crayfish Loses a Leg?

  • Do not panic. Leg loss is a natural occurrence and they can regenerate lost limbs.
  • Quarantine. If you have several hermit crabs, separate hermit crab until the open wound seals up to prevent infection. If you have aquatic crustaceans (crayfish, shrimp, etc.) maintain excellent water quality.
  • Hiding spots. Make sure they have hiding spots to feel secure while molting and
  • Special diets. Feed a nutritious diet with protein and crustaceans require lots of calcium. Their exoskeleton needs calcium to harden properly.
  • Do not disturb it during molting. During molting, they are soft and vulnerable. Do not stress them. The regeneration process takes several molts over weeks/months. Be patient for full regrowth.

Once regrown, the new limb may be smaller. But it will gain size, strength, and function with each successive molt.

The key is providing ideal conditions for the regeneration process and monitoring closely. With time and care, they can make a full recovery.

Related articles:

Is It Possible to Regenerate a Lost Limb Without Molting?

Periodically, on various internet forums, you can come across claims by some individuals that their pets were able to regenerate lost body parts without molting.

In my experience, I have never encountered such cases, and if they do exist, they would be considered anomalous phenomena. Currently, the scientific consensus is also that this is not possible in crustaceans because growth in crustaceans is a discontinuous process, appendages can be replaced only by molting.

Therefore, to answer this question – no, crustaceans cannot regenerate lost limbs without molting. Molting is an absolute requirement for limb regeneration in crustaceans like crabs, lobsters, shrimp, and crayfish.

There are problems here:

  • The hard exoskeleton of crustaceans prevents any significant increase in limb size outside of molting. The rigid exoskeleton blocks cellular growth and expansion.
  • Without molting, the blastema (regenerative cell mass) cannot expand enough to produce a complete limb due to physical constraints.
  • Hormones that stimulate regeneration are also tied to the molting cycle, so bypassing molts is practically impossible.
  • Additionally, experimental prevention of molting blocks limb development completely.

As we can see, there is no evidence that crustaceans can regenerate even smalllimbs without the periodic exoskeleton shedding enabled by molting. The molt cycle is indispensable for allowing regenerative regrowth in crustaceans.

In Conclusion

Losing a limb is not a death sentence for crustaceans!

Crustaceans can loseand regenerate their limbs from juvenile to adult stages. Although these animals demonstrate impressive regenerative abilities for their limbs and exoskeleton, their capacity for regeneration is limited to specific body parts and does not extend to internal organs.

The rate at which the limbs regenerate is dependent on the molt cycle. This process involves the development of a small bud that gradually grows into a fully functional limb, complete with joints and muscles.


  1. Feleke, Mesalie, Samuel Bennett, Jiazhi Chen, David Chandler, Xiaoyong Hu, and Jiake Xu. “Biological insights into the rapid tissue regeneration of freshwater crayfish and crustaceans.” Cell Biochemistry and Function39, no. 6 (2021): 740-753.
  2. Ventura, T., M. J. Stewart, J. C. Chandler, B. Rotgans, A. Elizur and A. W. Hewitt (2019). “Molecular aspects of eye development and regeneration in the Australian redclaw crayfish, Cheraxquadricarinatus.” Aquaculture and Fisheries 4(1): 27-36.
  3. Govind, C. and J. Pearce (1985). “Enhanced reappearance of fast fibers in regenerating crayfish claw closer muscles.” Developmental biology 107(1): 206-212
  4. Bittner, G. D. and R. Kopanda (1973). “Factors influencing molting in the crayfish Procambarusclarki.” Journal of Experimental Zoology 186(1): 7-16
  5. Zhang, C., X.-z. Yang, M.-j. Xu, G.-y. Huang, Q. Zhang, Y.-x. Cheng, L. He and H.-y. Ren (2018). “Melatonin promotes cheliped regeneration, digestive enzyme function, and immunity following autotomy in the chinese mitten Crab, Eriocheirsinensis.” Frontiers in physiology 9: 269.
  6. Smith, David L. “Patterns of limb loss in the blue crab, CallinectessapidusRathbun, and the effects of autotomy on growth.” Bulletin of Marine Science46, no. 1 (1990): 23-36.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Recent Content