Several years ago, when the Yeti crab, Kiwa hirsuta was first described, the world looked at a crustacean for the first time and went, “AWWWWW!!!”
I mean, how could you know love crabs from the Kiwa genus? They have fuzzy arms! And are adorable! People immediately began paying tribute with plush toys of all manner and even decorative food arrangements.
So what could be better than a plain ole’ Yeti crab?
That’s right – marine ecologist, deep sea biologist, and all around good egg Andrew Thurber has discovered a new species if Yeti crab, Kiwa puravida that appears to be farming methane consuming bacteria living on the hairs on its arms. How does it farm them? It waves its arms around in the air (like it just don’t care!) – er, water – around of methane seeps. Then periodically scrapes the bacteria off of its arms as food. The waving action serves to amp up supply the bacteria with more methane and other compounds that otherwise would be limited due to boundary layer conditions around the crabs hairy arms. And it looks like they’re having a great time doing it. In fact….I couldn’t resist grabbing the creative commons video on the PLoS paper and, um, adding a soundtrack.
(I really really couldn’t resist.)
(OK, maybe I saw him give a talk on this a few months ago, and have been waiting this entire time for it to be published so I could put a soundtrack on this video. Maybe. Maybe definitely.)
OK, ok, aside from this awesome behavior, what I love about this paper is Andrew takes what could have been a neat behavioral observation with a hypothesis that makes a nice just-so story, and then he tackles it with some really hot science. He uses detailed fatty acid and isotope analysis that shows, definitively, that the Yeti crabs are getting their nutrition from the bacteria on their arms. The symbiosis is real and biologically important. It’s a compelling solid story that gives us a new insight onto the unique life that lives in the deep sea.
Moreover, as Thurber writes, if anything, it highlights how little we know about life in the deep sea. If we have only just discovered that Yeti crabs must dance in the deep to make a living, what other fascinating discoveries are out there?
Update: See Doctor Zen’s version Yeti crabs can dance if they want to (Safety Dance). Anyone else want to take a swing at it?
Thurber, A., Jones, W., & Schnabel, K. (2011). Dancing for Food in the Deep Sea: Bacterial Farming by a New Species of Yeti Crab PLoS ONE, 6 (11) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0026243