Newly Discovered Crab Species Redefines 'Hardcore'

September 22, 2015 | Sarah Tse

Hairy Yeti Crab
Photo credit: Thatje et al, 2015. Image altered from original.

This newly discovered die-hard crab literally lives on the edge, where few other species can survive: on the chimneys of hydrothermal vents in the Antarctic Ocean.

Although scientists only recently discovered the hairy yeti crab, or Kiwa tyleri, this tough crustacean has been living in one of the least hospitable environments in the world for millions of years now. The crab, affectionately nicknamed the "Hoff" for its copious chest hair, likes a toasty temperature range between 95 and 104 degrees Fahrenheit. The problem is, the hydrothermal vents it calls home usually gush scalding hot waters at 715 degrees, while the surrounding Antarctic waters rarely top freezing temperatures. As a result, hundreds of these crabs must crowd into the narrow band of space near a vent where the water feels just right. The study authors even found one chimney where 4,000 crabs were squeezed into just one square meter of space. 

In such an austere environment, pickings are obviously pretty slim. But as it happens, those thick thoracic carpets make a fine home for chemosynthetic bacteria. These are the only kinds of bacteria that can survive in the dark, hot, methane-rich waters near hydrothermal vents. In the same way that algae use photosynthesis to make food out of sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide, chemosynthetic bacteria can make food out of the chemicals spewing out of vents, so they form the foundation of this unique ecosystem. The crabs obtain plenty of sustenance by combing their chest hair and munching on the microbial scraps. The hairy yeti crab is a stunning example of nature's ability to eke out an existence in even the harshest places.

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