Is There A Difference Between Shrimp And Prawns?

What's in a name? A lot when it comes to cantankerous crustacean discussions. Distinguishing between a shrimp and a prawn begins with a nod to regional terms and local associations. Consumers in the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Australia use an all-encompassing category in which both sea creatures are one and the same, while North Americans typically distinguish shrimps and prawns as separate entities, explains Healthline.

The shrimp/prawns moniker debate isn't just a seafood industry classification, as it also filters into pop culture, notes USA Today. The famous 1984 throw "another shrimp on the barbie" ad campaign by the Australian Tourism Commission, featuring actor Paul Hogan, reportedly made concessions to North American consumers on the issue. They tossed aside the usual Australian word "prawns" in deference to "shrimp" in order to reach a broader audience.

Which verbiage is correct comes down to science and marine life "families" in the end. Shrimp and prawns do indeed hail from the same crustacean clan known as decapods, but they branch off by suborders: Pleocyemata for shrimps and Dendrobranchiata for prawns (via USA Today). That's where the differences emerge, ranging from appearance to reproduction, habitats, size, and taste.

Scientific classifications aside, the lines still get blurred when purchasing them in your local grocery store or seafood purveyor. So here's a look at those differences and how they affect the dishes landing on your dinner table.

Size, shape, and reproduction

The word decapod scoops both shrimp and prawns into its aquatic order, along with about 8,000 other crustacean species such as crabs, crayfish, and lobster, according to Britannica. It fittingly means "10 legs" in Greek, a characteristic shared by both shrimp and prawns. They also share a similar exoskeleton and body sections, but characteristics quickly diverge from there, providing visual cues when you're buying them for your menus and recipes. 

Southern Living points out the claws, with shrimp having a single pair, one each resting on two crab legs, and prawns sporting three pairs of claws. Both have three body segments, but they overlap in different ways, leading to the distinctive curvy shape of shrimp and the contrasting straighter body structure of prawns, per Healthline. 

Prawn legs also tend to be longer than those of their shrimpy cousins and they add to the family line much differently. Shrimp cradle their fertilized future offspring beneath their bodies, while prawn set their eggs free to fend for themselves (via Healthline).

Where they live and how they taste

Most living things at least partially become a product of their environment and our 10-legged crustacean friends are no different. Though shrimp and prawns "can" live in both salt and fresh waters, they overwhelmingly cluster in separate water kingdoms. Most prawns thrive in fresh water, while at least 75% of shrimp make their homes in saltwater domains, according to Healthline.

While taste is very similar between the two, some people point to subtle differences. USA Today notes that distinct habitats include different food chains, potentially affecting taste. When unseasoned, shrimp may appear slightly saltier, and prawns can lean toward a hint of sweetness. This, along with size, may inform your recipes.

Prawns tend to be larger than most shrimp varieties, so pay attention to both weight and the number of shrimp or prawns required in a recipe. When buying either, you'll likely notice a "count per pound" revelation at the store's seafood counter or by the product packager. In general, large shrimp or prawns equate to 40 or fewer included in a pound; Medium sizes will net you roughly 50 and small varieties weigh in at about 60, according to Healthline.