Snow Crab vs King Crab: 4 Key Differences Explained

Written by Hannah Ward
Updated: November 5, 2022
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Snow crabs and king crabs are both extremely unique crabs but are sometimes mistaken for each other as they are both large and are highly sought after by fishermen.  They are very similar colors and both have long legs.  However, there are some key differences that make it much easier to tell them apart. Let’s dive into the differences that separate snow crab vs king crab!

Comparing King Crab vs Snow Crab

Snow crabs, also known as queen crabs, have a round, flat shell and long legs and they are often described as being “spider-like”.  King crabs are closely related to hermit crabs and males and females have noticeably different shell shapes.  However, that’s not all there is to know about king crabs and snow crabs, so check out the chart below to learn a few of the main differences.

King CrabSnow Crab
LocationMostly Bering Sea between Alaska and RussiaNorth Atlantic and North Pacific oceans
HabitatShallow and muddy coastal watersDeep, cold water. Prefer soft, sandy, or muddy bottoms
SizeUp to 20 pounds5 to 7 pounds
SpinesYes – all over their bodyNo
LegsShorter but thickerLonger but thinner
Eggs50,000 to 500,00016,000 to 160,000
DietAnything they can crush with their claws – fish, worms, clams, mussels, sea stars, other crabsSmall fish, clams, worms, sea stars, crustaceans
PredatorsCod, halibut, sole, octopus, sea otters, king crabs (cannabilism)Skate, halibut, cod, seals, squid, other crabs
Lifespan20 to 30 yearsUp to 20 years

The 4 Key Differences Between Snow Crabs and King Crabs

King crabs are larger than snow crabs and have more variety. King crabs have spines across their body while snow crabs lack these spikes. There are around 40 different species of king crabs while there are only 7 species of snow crabs.

Both species of crab have a similar diet but they live at very different depths.  One is also much, much heavier than the other, but the smaller one has longer legs.  Not only that, but one has a thick, tough shell and is covered with spines which help to deter predators.  

Snow Crab vs King Crab: Size

Top 10 Animals That Have Shells - king crab
King crabs can weight up to 20 pounds and are covered in spines

©Larisa Blinova/Shutterstock.com

Easily the most noticeable difference between snow crabs and king crabs is the difference between their sizes.  King crabs are much, much larger than snow crabs and weigh in at a whopping 20 pounds.  They also have a shell (carapace) width of 11 inches. Red king crabs are among the largest crab species in the world.

In contrast, snow crabs are relative lightweights and usually weigh between 5 and 7 pounds.  Not only that, but snow crabs exhibit sexual dimorphism.  This is because male snow crabs are around twice the size of females.  The shell size of males is usually 6.5 inches, while females are only 3.7 inches in diameter.

Snow Crab vs King Crab: Legs

Another noticeable difference between the two crabs is the length of their legs.  Although king crabs are the heavier of the two and can have a leg span of up to 5 feet, their legs are actually shorter but thicker than those belonging to snow crabs.  King crab legs alone can weigh up to 6 pounds and they have a tough shell.  Their bodies and legs are also covered in spiky spines.  Compared to the legs of king crabs, snow crabs legs are usually longer but much thinner.

Snow Crab vs King Crab: Habitat

The king crab vs snow crab also lives in vastly different habitats.  Most king crabs prefer to live in shallow and muddy coastal waters on the seafloor in the Bering Sea between Alaska and Russia.  They often live close to coral reefs as they provide plenty of food and hiding places.  Although most king crabs live in water that is less than 600 feet, the golden king crab lives in water that is much deeper.  Golden king crabs live in water that is between 1,000 and 3,000 feet deep, but migrate to shallower waters in the winter to molt and mate.

Snow crabs live in the North Atlantic and North Pacific oceans where they live in the deepest and coldest part of the ocean.  Their preferred temperatures are between -1 and 5 degrees C.  Snow crabs live on the ocean’s shelf and upper slope, usually on sandy and muddy bottoms and their depth ranges up to 7,175 feet.

Snow Crab vs King Crab: Reproduction

The number of eggs that the female king crab vs snow crab lays also differs.  Snow crabs carry their eggs for up to one year before they hatch and females lay between 16,000 and 160,000 eggs which hatch in the spring.  Once hatched the snow crab larvae are pelagic and feed on plankton.  They go through three larvae stages before they become “megalops”.  Megalops look similar to crabs but with long tails.  They settle on the ocean floor and then molt into their first crab stage.

King crabs produce between 50,000 and an incredible 500,000 eggs which also hatch in the spring.  King crab larvae are often described as looking like shrimp when they hatch.  They spend between two and three months in the larvae stage before morphing into small crabs and settling on the ocean floor.

King crabs can lay up to 500,000 eggs

©Stan Shebs / Creative Commons

FAQ’s (Frequently Asked Questions)

Are king crabs and snow crabs from the same family group?

No, king crabs are from the family group Lithodidae while snow crabs are from the family group Oregoniidae.

Are king crabs true crabs?

No, although they have the name “crab”, king crabs are not true crabs.  Instead, they are from the infraorder Anomura which is described as including hermit crabs and others.  In fact, this infraorder tends to include “crabs” which have different or unusual forms.  True crabs – including snow crabs – belong to the infraorder Brachyura.

Do male and female king crabs have different body shapes?

Yes, male and female king crabs can be distinguished by their body shape.  Males have a triangular and pointed shell shape while females are fan-shaped.

Why were king crabs reclassified?

King crabs were originally classified in the same superfamily as hermit crabs (Paguridea) because they are believed to have evolved from ancient hermit-like ancestors.  However, they were eventually reclassified into their own superfamily (Lithodoidea).

Are snow crabs and king crabs dangerous?

Neither snow crabs nor king crabs are particularly aggressive or dangerous to humans.  However, king and snow crab fishing are amongst the most dangerous types of crab fishing as they are harvested during the winter when the water is particularly cold.  There is also a greater risk of storms and bad weather and numerous fishermen have died while king and snow crab fishing.


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About the Author

I have been writing professionally for several years with a focus on animals and wildlife. I love spending time in the outdoors and when not writing I can be found on the farm surrounded by horses, dogs, sheep, and pigs.

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