Facts about the animal kingdom

Crab Anatomy - Parts of a Crab

María Luz Thurman
By María Luz Thurman, Biologist/ornithologist. July 1, 2024
Crab Anatomy - Parts of a Crab

Crabs are crustaceans which mainly live in marine waters, although some are freshwater and a small number are mainly terrestrial. Despite their diverse habitats, they all share certain key physical features. These include an exoskeleton, stalked eyes, hard carapace and their famous pincer claws. Since they are mainly aquatic animals, they also have specialized anatomy to allow them to breathe, swim and carry out other activities underwater.

At AnimalWised, we discover all about crab anatomy by looking at the body parts of a crab. We use diagrams to better illustrate these crab parts and explain the function of them all.

You may also be interested in: How Do Crabs Reproduce?
  1. Shell
  2. Cephalothorax
  3. Abdomen
  4. Limbs and extremities
  5. Internal body parts
  6. Other parts of the crab


The first part of crab anatomy we must discuss nis their distinctive hard shell. Also known as the carapace, it is a vital structure of crabs which helps to protect them from the many predators which search out crab for their nutritious innards. It not only protects them from other animals, but from the often adverse conditions in their habitat. It is part of their exoskeleton with other parts of the crab anatomy similarly protected.

Although we know the crab shell to be very hard and durable, this is not always the case. For crabs to grow and carry out other processes, they molt. This means they form a new exoskeleton under the current one. The old exoskeleton sheds and the new one emerges. This new shell is soft as it needs to grow with the crab's body, but it will soon harden to provide protection.

The crab shell is able to do this because of the material from which it is made. Crab shells and exoskeletons as a whole are mainly composed of chitin, a resistant and flexible nitrogenous polymer that is impregnated with calcium carbonate. It can soften to allow for the molting, but will harden to provide rigidity and hardness once the molting is completed.

The crab shell consists of several layers:

  • Epicuticle: thin, waxy outermost layer that prevents water loss and protects against chemicals.
  • Exocuticle: thicker layer that provides most of the toughness.
  • Endocuticle: the most flexible inner layer, allowing some movement.

Crab shell anatomy

The crab shell is a structure that acts as armor to protect the crab from predators, injuries and adverse environmental conditions. In addition, it provides support for the internal musculature and allows the attachment of muscles through insertions inside the shell. As the crab grows, it must shed its shell in the aforementioned molting process. This is called ecdysis and allows the crab to renew its external structure.

The shell can vary in shape depending on the species. Some are oval in shape and others are rectangular. Color is also another variable component, since some species may present bright colors. Other crab species have patterns that facilitate camouflage or communication with other crabs.

Learn more about how the crab shell changes with our article on how crustaceans grow.


The cephalothorax is another vital part of crab anatomy which contains many different crab parts which are vital for their survival. It combines the cephalon (head) and thorax (chest) into a single structural unit which covered by the shell. This fusion allows for efficient protection of internal organs, as well as providing a rigid framework for the attachment of muscles and limbs.


The crab's head is equipped with crucial sensory structures that facilitate interaction with its environment. These include the eyes, antennae and antennules. These parts are adapted to detect changes in the environment, find food and communicate with other crabs.

  • Rostrum: it is located on the front and is a projection of the shell that varies in shape and size depending on the species. For example, the rostrum in fiddler crabs is prominent and is used in courtship.
  • Eyes: as seen in the diagram below, they are located on mobile stalks known as peduncles. They allow a wide range of movement and a panoramic view. These compound eyes are made up of multiple ommatidia, small optical units that collect light and detect movement and changes in light intensity. This structure is especially useful for detecting predators and prey in the aquatic environment. The ability to retract the eyes in species such as the fiddler crab adds additional protection against damage.
  • Antennae: located just behind the eyes, they are long and segmented and fulfill the primary function of detecting chemical stimuli in the water. They act as olfactory and tactile sensors, helping the crab locate food and mates. The antennae are highly sensitive to changes in the chemical environment, allowing them to perceive signals from possible prey or predators. They also serve in communication between individuals.
  • Antennules: these are smaller structures and are found in front of the antennae. These are also segmented and play a key role in balance, as well as detection of chemical and mechanical stimuli. The antennules contain statocysts. These are sensory organs that help crabs maintain balance and orient themselves in their environment. They are especially useful in turbulent waters or when the crab moves over uneven surfaces. Additionally, the antennules amplify the crab's sensory capacity, contributing to navigation and exploration of its environment.

Together, these parts of the crab head anatomy provide the crustacean with an advanced sensory ability, crucial for survival in various habitats. They help the crab avoid predators, search for food and communicate with other crabs, optimizing their ability to adapt to and survive in both aquatic and terrestrial environments.


The thorax of the crab is made up of the following external parts:

  • Pereiopods: these are the walking legs and are used for locomotion.
  • Chelipeds: also known as pincers or claws, they are prominent appendages that extend from the cephalothorax. They are used for defense, food manipulation, and, in some species such as fiddler crabs, in courtship behaviors. In species such as the coconut crab, the claws are usually larger and specialized for cutting or crushing the hard shells of coconuts.

Additionally, internally, the cephalothorax houses the gills. These are crucial organs for gas exchange, allowing aquatic respiration. It also contains the rest of the crab's vital organs including the heart, stomach and organs of the nervous system.

Variations in cephalothorax structure reflect evolutionary adaptations to different habitats. For example, the cephalothorax in hermit crabs is more flexible to allow retraction into shells. Blue crabs have a wide, flattened cephalothorax with large chelipeds adapted to capturing prey.

Learn more about the nature of this crustacean with our article on whether crabs are vertebrates or invertebrates.

Crab Anatomy - Parts of a Crab - Cephalothorax


The abdomen of the crab is a region posterior to the cephalothorax. It is crucial for crab reproduction, as well as providing general structure to the body. The abdomen of brachyurans (the order to which crabs belong) is reduced and folds under the cephalothorax, an adaptation that protects the reproductive organs and provides a compact body ideal for benthic habitats.

In male crabs, the abdomen is narrow and triangular. In females, the abdomen is wider to accommodate the eggs during incubation. The crab abdomen is mainly made up of the following parts:

  • Pleopods: located in the ventral part of the abdomen. They are key adaptations. In males, they are modified as gonopods for sperm transfer. In females, they hold and protect the fertilized eggs.
  • Muscle segments: facilitate movements. In hermit crabs, they are longer and adapt to retract into shells, providing defense and mobility.

Crab abdomen anatomy

The pleon of a crab refers to the abdomen and the tail fan. In aquatic crabs such as the blue crab, the pleon has a broad and flattened tail which helps to facilitate swimming. In terrestrial crabs, the tail fan is much more reduced since they don't need it for water agility. It is usually more rigid in terrestrial crabs, being used to protect them form predators and falls.

In addition to housing internal organs and external appendages, the crab abdomen fulfills various necessary functions. For example, the abdomen contains gonopores which are genital openings that allow the release of gametes. This multifunctional structure is key to the survival and evolutionary success of crabs, integrating protection, reproduction and adaptation to the environment.

Limbs and extremities

The crab's limbs consist of chelipeds (claws), pereiopods (walking legs) and pleopods (swimming legs). They are essential structures for its mobility, feeding, defense and reproduction. The following crab limbs are shown in the diagram below:

  • Chelipeds: they are large pincers located in the front of the crab and emerge from the cephalothorax. These limbs are robust and have a structure composed of a propodium (fixed part) and a dactylus (movable part). These allow for a powerful pincer movement. They are used for defense, food manipulation and in courtship.
  • Pereiopods: these are the main walking appendages. They generally consist of five pairs, with the first pair modified as chelipeds. The other four pairs allow efficient lateral locomotion, a hallmark of many crabs. They are crucial for digging and moving in various environments. Crabs are a type of decapod, the name referring to the ten total legs they possess.
  • Pleopods: they are located in the abdomen. They have reproductive roles and in some species swimming. In males, they are modified as gonopods to transfer sperm. In females, they hold and ventilate the eggs. In swimming crabs, these appendages are flat and act as paddles for swimming.

If you want to know more about crab limbs, take a look at our related article on how many legs does a crab have?

Carb limb anatomy

The limbs of crabs are adapted to maximize efficiency in their environment, facilitating everything from predation to parental care. They allow for their survival in the diverse aquatic and terrestrial habitats in which crabs live.

Crab Anatomy - Parts of a Crab - Limbs and extremities

Internal body parts

The internal parts of the crab include complex systems that allow breathing, circulation, digestion and reproduction. These are the vital behaviors of crabs which are need for the survival of both the individual and the continuation of the species. We start with the parts of the crab that make up breathing and circulation:

  • Gills: they are located in the gill chambers on both sides of the cephalothorax, protected by the shell. They are feather-shaped filamentous structures, composed of a series of sheets or filaments that maximize gas exchange area. The gills filter oxygen from the water that passes over them and expel carbon dioxide, allowing respiration. They also play a role in waste excretion and osmoregulation, helping the crab balance the salt and water content in its body. The movement of nearby limbs helps maintain a constant flow of water over the gills, ensuring a continuous supply of oxygen. The gills of terrestrial crabs are usually modified to allow breathing outside of water.
  • Heart: an elongated muscular organ located in the dorsal part of the body, just below the shell surface. It functions as a central pump for the crabs' open circulatory system, where hemolymph (a fluid equivalent to blood) is pumped through a system of sinuses and vessels. Hemolymph transports oxygen and nutrients to tissues and organs, and collects metabolic wastes for excretion. The heart has a rhythm controlled by nerve ganglia and their action is crucial for the distribution of oxygen and nutrients in the crab's body.

Learn more about how hemolymph is important for invertebrates with our article on whether insects have blood.

Regarding the digestive system of crabs, the stomach is divided into two chambers:

  • Cardiac stomach: located just behind the cephalothorax, it contains a structure called the gastric pinwheel which grinds food through a series of plates and calcified teeth.
  • Pyloric stomach: located further back than the cardiac stomach, it acts as a filter to separate digested particles before they pass to the midgut for nutrient absorption. This separation ensures that only processed nutrients reach the intestine, improving digestive efficiency. In this system, the digestive glands (hepatopancreas) secrete enzymes that aid in the digestion and absorption of nutrients.

Finally, the gonads are the reproductive organs. They are located in the dorsal part of the body between the heart and the stomach. In males, the gonads are testicles that produce sperm. In females, they are ovaries that produce eggs.

During the breeding season, male crab gonads enlarge and the development of gametes accelerates. Sperm are transferred to females via gonopods during copulation and fertilized eggs are transported to the gill chambers or attached to the female's abdomen for incubation. Gonad development is influenced by environmental and hormonal factors and plays a crucial role in the reproductive cycle of crabs.

Learn more about the different modes of reproduction in animals.

Crab Anatomy - Parts of a Crab - Internal body parts

Other parts of the crab

In addition to the main parts of the crab, there are other specialized components that serve specific functions in its feeding and food handling:

  • Mouth: it is located in the lower part of the thorax, between the front legs. It allows for the ingestion of food.
  • Maxilipeds: these are modified appendages located around the crab's mouth. These appendages are adapted to manipulate food and direct it towards the mouth. They function as tools to hold, cut and transport food to the jaws for subsequent crushing and digestion.
  • Mandibles: the equivalent of jaws, the mandibles are located in the crab's mouth. They are strong, calcified structures that play a crucial role in crushing and processing food. These structures are designed to cut and grind hard materials such as shells of crustaceans, mollusks and other invertebrates, facilitating efficient digestion.

These additional components are essential for the crab's feeding and food processing, ensuring that it can properly obtain and utilize nutrients from its environment. While we have provided a general overview of crab anatomy, you can learn more about their differences by looking at the different types of crab species.

If you want to read similar articles to Crab Anatomy - Parts of a Crab, we recommend you visit our Facts about the animal kingdom category.

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  • Findlay, R. (1985). Anatomy and physiology of the crab balancing organ. University of Aberdeen (United Kingdom).
  • González‐Pisani, X., Baron, P., & Lopez Greco, L. S. (2012). Functional anatomy of the female reproductive systems of two spider crabs (D ecapoda, M ajoidea). Invertebrate Biology, 131(1), 61-74.
  • Simeó, C. G., Ribes, E., & Rotllant, G. (2009). Internal anatomy and ultrastructure of the male reproductive system of the spider crab Maja brachydactyla (Decapoda: Brachyura). Tissue and Cell, 41(5), 345-361.
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Crab Anatomy - Parts of a Crab