ORGANISM OF THE MONTH: Pugettia producta, the kelp crab
For a few months now, I've had a pet kelp crab running around in one of my seawater tables. I don't remember where I collected it, or even whether or not I collected it at all; quite often crabs and other animals arrive as hitch-hikers on kelp that we bring into the lab to feed urchins, and I end up with many cool critters in my care that way. However she got here, this crab has been rather a pain in the butt during her stay with me. For at least a couple of weeks she got stuck in the drain of the table and would not come out despite three experienced marine biologists (including yours truly) trying to persuade her by altering water flow and offering food bribes. Then she disappeared from the table drain and I assumed that she had gone all the way through to the floor drain, where she could live quite happily for all eternity. Then she suddenly showed up again in one of my urchin baskets. When she came back up from the drain and how long she'd been hiding, I'll never know.
Wondering why I keep referring to this crab as "she"? It's because I know for certain that she's a female. Here's the secret to how you can determine the sex of brachyuran crabs (most of the common crabs: kelp crabs, shore crabs, rock crabs, even Dungeness crabs): You look at the shape of the abdomen, which is curved forward on the underside of the body. See here:
The abdomen is the broad flat upside-down-U-shaped panel that covers about half the width of the ventral surface. Female crabs brood their embryos under the abdomen, hence the broad shape. Male crabs of the same species have a much narrower, pointed abdomen.
Since her escapade with the drain the crab has been more, shall we say, co-operative. She's still free to scurry around at will in the table, but I haven't found her doing anything objectionable such as tormenting urchins or trying to get down the drain again. She has also been eating well.
Until this past week, that is. On Monday she accepted a piece of food but then abandoned it without even tasting it. On Wednesday she fled from the food, which I took to mean that she was getting ready to molt. Like all arthropods, crustaceans molt their exoskeletons every so often. The decapod crustaceans I'm most familiar with tend to off their feed for a few days before molting, and usually the actual shedding of the exoskeleton occurs at night. Then we show up the next day and voilà! like magic there's a new, bigger crab in the table.
Ms. Kelp Crab stopped eating on Monday of this week. Today (Friday) I didn't get to the lab until about noon, and one thing I noticed in the table was an empty carapace. Sure enough, she had molted. It took a little hunting to find the crab herself, but she wasn't really hiding and her new exoskeleton had already hardened. I'm pretty sure she'll eat on Monday.
Living in a rigid exoskeleton means that a crustacean can increase in body size only in the time period between when an old exoskeleton is shed and the new one hardens up. I'm always curious about exactly how much crabs grow when they molt. So today I measured the crab and her old carapace at the same place, halfway between the two points on the lateral edges of the carapace. Huzzah for empirical data! The old carapace measured 27.6mm across, and the new one 33.8mm, for an increase in width of 6.2mm or 22.5%. Mind you, this is simply the increase in one linear dimension of the crab's body. To obtain a more accurate measurement of body size increase, I'd have to have weighed the crab immediately before her molt and after it. Still, it does give an estimation of how much bigger a body part can get when a crab molts.