"So, naturalists observe, a flea has smaller fleas that on him prey; and these have smaller still to bite ’em; and so proceed ad infinitum."
- Jonathan Swift

April 26, 2015

Nepinnotheres novaezelandiae

Life as a pea crab seems pretty sweet, you spend most of your time sitting snug and protected within the armoured shelter of a shellfish, while your host's filtration current bring you a constant stream of oxygen and food - everything that a pea crab needs for a good life. Well, almost everything - because there's more to life than just being protected and fed. Much like other organisms pea crabs need to reproduce - that's how evolution works, and unlike many other living things, a pea crab cannot just clone itself.
Male Nepinnotheres novaezelandiae squeezing in between
the valves of a mussel. From video here.
So when it comes to reproduction, the balance of living the pea crab life tips from "pretty sweet" to "absolutely terrible" - especially if you are a male pea crab. For them, trying to find a mate is a harrowing challenge than none of us can possibly imagine. First of all, to reach a potential mate, you have to leave your host, which means you have to pass the gates that are the valves of the host mussel, without being caught in between them. At that stage, those valves that had offer such formidable protection for the pea crabs then become death traps, with about 13% of male crabs meeting their end at this molluscan gate - their bodies litter the mussel bed.

Once outside, the male pea crab faces even more challenges. These tiny crustaceans, which are more accustom to a cosy life inside a shellfish, have to cross the treacherous, open areas of the mussel bed, filled with horrible monsters (in the form of predators like fish, octopus, and larger crustaceans) for which an exposed pea crab is just a convenient snack. Furthermore, male crabs only make up 20% of the population despite the more or less equal sex ratio of immature pea crabs. The length that they have to go to just to find a mate probably has something to do with that...

Despite the odds, almost 90% of all female crabs in the population carry fertilised eggs, so some male crabs must be having successes - but how?

The researchers who conducted this study noticed that the male pea crabs always set out under the cover of darkness when they will be less likely to be spotted by predators, and also because mussels are more relaxed at night. From the researchers' perspective, this also means that all the experiments and observation of pea crab behaviour had to be done in the dark. So in addition to sea water tanks, they set up some infra-red cameras to capture footages of all this activity - like some kind of voyeuristic shellfish reality TV show.

So what would coax a male crab out of his cosy home? To find out, the researchers constructed a flow-through observation chamber lined with PVC tubes in which they placed pea crab-infected mussels. When they placed a mussel with a female crab upstream of one with a male pea crab, the male crab would exit their host 60% of the time, roused into action by something which seem to secreted by the mussel (or the female crab in the mussel) upstream.

Male Nepinnotheres novaezelandiae tickling the mantle edge
of a mussel. From videos here.
The crab then makes its way to the mussel where the female crab resides. Once there, the pea crab patiently tickles the mussel's mantle fringe with its legs to try and convince the bivalve to let it enter. This is also the reason why the male crab only do this at night, because a mussel's response to such tickling can be very different in daylight. Try the same trick during the day and the bivalves would slam shut, crushing the amorous crab between its valves. On average, the crab will spend over three hours fiddling away at the mussel to coax the shellfish into opening up.

Additionally, in a different flow-through seawater tank where the crabs were given more freedom to roam from one host to another, the researchers recorded how long it took for the male pea crab to leave its host and reach a mussel containing a female crab. The entire journey from exiting the original host mussel to reaching their final destination took seven hours on average, though this varies from a quick hour-and-a-half jolt, to an eighteen-and-a-half hour-long trek for one particularly unfortunate individual.

So when love (or at least lust) is in the water, the pea crab will give up the easy life, and risk life and limbs for an evening rendezvous.

Trottier, O., & Jeffs, A. G. (2015). Mate locating and access behaviour of the parasitic pea crab, Nepinnotheres novaezelandiae, an important parasite of the mussel Perna canaliculus. Parasite, 22: 13.

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