Long carapace spines help larval crabs swim

by Anna Smith and Amanda Kahn

We are used to seeing crabs scuttling across the seafloor or scrambling under rocks in the intertidal zone, but before they settle on the seabed they have larval stages that live in the water column as plankton.  Zoeae (pronounced zoe-EE-uh) and megalopae (MEG-uh-lope-ee) drift through the water, eating food and eventually metamorphosing into bottom-dwelling crabs.

Crab life cycle stages

Life cycle stages of a crab: an egg hatches into swimming zoea stages, then to a megalopa, then metamorphoses into a benthic juvenile and adult crab. Image credit: A Snail’s Odyssey

For her class project in Crustacean Biology (a summer course taught in 2012), Anna Smith worked with instructor Greg Jensen to study how swimming is accomplished by the zoeae of a porcelain crab, Petrolisthes cinctipes. Most crab larvae swim vertically in the water column and are fairly poor swimmers. These zoeae are swept along with the currents and are often taken out to sea with no hope of returning to the shore to settle. Check out the video below to see how zoeae of most crab species move in the water.

Most crab zoeae have sharply pointed spines projecting from their carapace, as pictured below. Previous studies have found these spines to be connected with predator avoidance by making the larvae harder to swallow. The zoeae of porcelain crabs, however, have unusually long spines sticking out the front and back of the carapace. They are also much stronger swimmers than zoeae of many crab species, enabling them to stay close to shore and avoid being swept away from settling grounds. These zoeae swim horizontally through the water column and exhibit much more directional control than most crab zoeae. Anna studied whether the elongated spines of porcelain crabs were connected to their unique swimming by studying their swimming ability with both spines intact, then removed the front, back, or all spines to see how their swimming changed.

Zoea of a porcelain crab

Zoea of a porcelain crab. Image credit: Greg Jensen 2015. This image is from his new book, Crabs and Shrimps of the Pacific Northwest.

The spines were in fact very important to the swimming ability of the zoeae.  Zoeae who had their front (anterior) spine removed could not maintain constant depth in the water.  Zoeae who had their posterior spines removed could not swim backwards or change directions easily and with both front and back spines removed the zoeae could not swim at all. This led Anna and Greg to conclude that the spines contribute to the superior swimming ability of porcelain crab zoeae.

Why is this important? This suggests that the carapace spines are not only used as physical protection from predators, as previously suggested, but also contribute to their survival in other ways. Anna and Greg also hypothesize that the ability to better control direction and water column depth helps the zoeae navigate currents and stay close to shore and may explain their limited dispersal offshore.

Citation:

Smith, AE, and GC Jensen (2015). The role of carapace spines in the swimming behavior of porcelain crab zoeae (Crustacea: Decapoda: Porcellanidae).  Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology, 471:175-179.

If you want to learn more about the crabs and shrimps along our coast, check out Greg Jensen’s new crustacean guide Crabs and Shrimps of the Pacific Northwest.

To learn more about this course and others offered at BMSC, check out the University Programs website.

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