blue crab, common name for a crustacean , Callinectes sapidus, found on the S Atlantic and Gulf coasts of North America. The blue crab is a member of the family of swimming crabs known as the Portunidae and is characterized by a broad, semitriangular carapace (shell) covering the thorax, by a narrow abdomen tucked under its body, and by five pairs of appendages called pereiopods, of which the first two bear large claws (chelae) and the last two are flattened paddles modified for swimming. It is the most common edible crab of the Atlantic coast, and several million pounds are fished commercially by trapping or trawling each year. It is sold both as the hard-shell variety and as the familiar delicacy known as the soft-shelled crab. In the hard-shell form, the crab is in an intermolt phase (between molts) and the exoskeleton is fully hardened (sclerotized). In its soft-shell stage, the crab is in the phase just after the molt but before the exoskeleton has hardened. Since, in nature, the crab retires to secluded areas at the time of the molt and is thus difficult to collect, commercial fishermen collect the crabs at the so-called peeler stage, which occurs two to three days before the molt. The crabs are then held in pens, on floats in the water, until just after the molt, when they are marketable. The ovaries of the female begin to develop only after mating has taken place. The female carries the young under her abdomen until they hatch as tiny larvae, which are only 1⁄25 in. (0.1 cm) long. The crabs molt many times and grow to 7 in. (17.8 cm) in about 200 days. Blue crabs are classified in the phylum Arthropoda , subphylum Crustacea, class Malacostraca, order Decapoda, family Portunidae.
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