Movin’ On Up: Hermit Crabs & the World’s Only Beachfront Social Housing

(Via: )
(Via: onestopcountrypet.com)

Common Name: The Hermit Crab

A.K.A.: Superfamily Paguroidea

Vital Stats:

  • There are around 1100 species of hermit crabs in 120 genera
  • Range in size from only a few millimetres to half a foot in length
  • Some larger species can live for up to 70 years
  • Most species are aquatic, although there are some tropical terrestrial species

Found: Generally throughout the temperate and tropical oceans, in both shallow and deep areas (I was unable to find more specific data on this.)

Trop. & Temp. Oceans

It Does What?!

If there’s one thing nature loves, it’s symmetry. Sometimes radial symmetry, as we see in starfish or sea anemones; sometimes bilateral symmetry, as in mammals and insects, which have a right half and a left half. External asymmetry is extremely rare in living organisms, and when it does occur, it is generally in a minor form, such as a bird species with beaks bent to the side, or a type of flower with oddly distributed stamens. One of the very few groups with entire bodies that lack symmetry are the gastropods; specifically, the snails. They develop helical shells with asymmetrical bodies to match.

caption (Via: Wikimedia Commons)
The shells also hide how ridiculous they look naked.
(Via: Wikimedia Commons)

But this post isn’t about snails. It’s one thing to evolve an unusual asymmetrical bodyplan to go with your asymmetrical home. It’s another to evolve an asymmetrical bodyplan to go with somebody else’s home. Which brings us to the hermit crab. When snails die in ways that leave behind perfectly good shells on the beach, these guys literally queue up for the chance to move in. Hermit crabs are part of the decapod order of crustaceans, as crabs are, but are not in fact true crabs, and unlike most other crustaceans, they lack any kind of hard, calcified plating on their abdomens (think shrimp shells). Instead, they have a soft, spirally curved lower body that fits perfectly into a snail shell, with muscles that allow them to clasp onto the interior of the shell. Paleobiologists have found that hermit crabs have been living in found shells for over 150 million years, and that they made the move to snail shells when their original shell-producer, the ammonite, went extinct. Living in shells has strongly restricted their morphological evolution, meaning the crabs of aeons ago look pretty similar to the crabs of today, because their housing situation doesn’t allow a lot of change.

caption (Via: Telegraph.co.uk)
Housing shortages hurt everyone.
(Via: Telegraph.co.uk)

Back to those line-ups I mentioned. Unoccupied snail shells are a limited resource, and an unarmoured crustacean is an easy lunch, so of course a lot of fighting goes on over them; crabs will actually gang up on an individual with a higher quality shell and just yank the poor bugger out. But it actually gets much more complex than that… these little pseudo-crabs aren’t as dim and thuggish as you might think. You see, as a hermit crab grows over the course of its life, it needs a series of progressively larger shells in which to live. A crab stuck in an undersized shell is stunted in its growth and is much more vulnerable to predation, since it can’t fully withdraw into its armour. The easiest way to find your next home? Locate a slightly larger hermit crab about to trade up and grab its shell afterward. This is how the crabs form what are called “vacancy chains.” A series of individuals will line themselves up in order of size (I’ve seen groups of schoolchildren unable to perform this task), waiting for hours sometimes, and as the largest crab moves to its new shell, each successive crab will enter the newly vacated one. Brilliant… new homes for everybody, and no one gets hurt. In fact, if a given crab chances upon a new shell that it judges to be too large for its current size, it will actually wait next to the shell for a larger crab to come along and a vacancy chain to form. That’s pretty impressive reasoning for a brain smaller than a pea.

[Fun Fact: Larger aquatic hermit crabs sometimes form symbiotic relationships with sea anemones; the anemone lives on the crab’s shell, protecting its host from predators with its deadly sting, while the crab shares its food with the gelatinous bodyguard.]

Today in Words You Didn’t Think Existed:
carcinisation / car·si·nə·ˈzā·shən / n.
a process by which an organism evolves from a non-crablike form into a crablike form.

That’s right, glossophiles, thanks to a British zoologist, we actually have a specific word for turning into a crab. English rules.

Says Who?

  • Angel (2000) J. of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology 243: 169-184
  • Cunningham et al. (1992) Nature 355: 539-542
  • Fotheringham (1976) J. of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology 23(3): 299-305
  • Rotjan et al. (2010) Behavioral Ecology 21(3): 639-646
  • Tricarico & Gherardi (2006) Behav. Ecol. Sociobiol. 60: 492-500
Say hello to my little friend. (Via: dailykos.com)
“Say hello to my little friend.”
(Via: dailykos.com)

A Shellfish Goes to the Dark Side (Sacculina carcini)

The crab barnacle, hitchin’ a ride.
(Image by Hans Hillewaert)

Common Name: Crab Barnacle, or the charmingly descriptive Dutch term “krabbenzakje,” meaning “crab bag”

A.K.A.: Sacculina carcini (and other Sacculina species)

Found: In the coastal waters of Europe and North Africa

It Does What?!

Most barnacles, those almost quaint crusts seen decorating old piers and ships, live their lives by cementing themselves to a hard underwater surface and using their arm-like limbs to pull passing bits of food into their mouths all day. Not so for the crab barnacle, who decided that all that arm-waving was for chumps and set about evolving into the ultimate free-loader.

Normal, hardworking barnacles, for the sake of comparison…
(Image by Michael Maggs)

In its immature larval form, Sacculina has a similar body plan to other barnacles and is able to swim about freely; however, rather than finding a surface to settle down on, it finds itself a crab. Typically, this will be a green crab, species Carcinus maenas. The female barnacle (more on the males later) crawls along the surface of the crab’s shell until she comes to a joint – a chink in the armour – where she turns into a sort of hypodermic needle, injecting herself into the crab and leaving her limbs and shell behind. Now nothing more than a tiny slug-like mass, she makes her way to the crab’s abdomen and proceeds to grow rootlike tendrils throughout her host’s body, drawing nutrients directly from the bloodstream.

If that wasn’t disturbing enough, consider Sacculina’s mode of reproduction. In addition to its internal root system, the parasite forms an external sac (hence the nickname ‘crab bag’) where the female crab normally keeps her fertilized eggs. This is where the male barnacle comes into play. Upon finding a crab already infected by a female, the male will do the same needle trick, injecting himself into the external sac and living for the rest of his life as a parasite inside the female’s body. Fertilization takes place and the sac is soon full of microscopic Sacculina larvae.

In case you needed a closer look.

Since the barnacle infection has rendered the host sterile, and because crabs aren’t very bright, the crab will now care for this sac of larvae as if they were her own young. But what if the infected crab was male, you ask? No problem. The parasite is able to interfere with his hormones to such an extent that, in addition to changing his body shape to that of a female, he now actually behaves like, and even carries out the mating gestures of, a female crab. Horrified yet?

Now, this may not seem so bad from the point of view of the crab; I mean, it doesn’t know it’s carrying around evil changeling spawn, right? But it’s a bit worse than that. Wanting to keep all the available energy for its own use, the parasite prevents the crab from moulting its shell or re-growing lost claws, as crabs normally do. This leads to a variety of secondary infections which, coupled with malnutrition, leads to the premature death of the crab. But nature isn’t without a sense of fair play… research has now found that Sacculina sometimes succumbs to viruses and yeast naturally present in the crab’s body, via infection of its rootlets. Take that, bloodsucking barnacle!

Says Who?

  • Powell & Rowley (2008) Diseases of Aquatic Organisms 80: 75-79.
  • Zimmer (2000) “Do parasites rule the world?” Discover Magazine (August issue).
  • Russell et al. (2000) Journal of the Marine Biological Association of the U.K. 80: 373-374.
  • Mouritsen & Jensen (2006) Marine Biology Research 2: 270-275.
  • Goddard et al. (2005) Biological Invasions 7: 895-912.