Featured Image Credit: New Scientist/Ellen Muller
By Alice Morris
Feast your eyes upon the “candy-striped hermit crab,” a newly discovered crustacean that is fascinating biologists.
Underwater photographer, Ellen Muller discovered the tiny crab accidentally while diving off the southern Caribbean island of Bonaire. She was photographing a flaming reef lobster at the time, but when she sent her photos to crustacean expert Arthur Anker, another small animal caught his attention.
Anker referred Muller to hermit crab expert Rafael Lemaitre, who only had to take a quick look at the “photo bomber” to realize that Muller had stumbled upon something brand new to science.
Upon Lemaitre’s request, Muller returned to the Bonaire dive site to capture more photos and video footage of the hermit crabs. With the approval of the local government, she also collected specimens, which were sent back to the Smithsonian for Lemaitre to study.
The candy-striped hermit crab was named for the distinct red-and-white stripes on its legs and pincers, which reminded Muller and Lemaitre of candy canes, but it wasn’t just the crab’s appearance that intrigued Lemaitre.
In many of Muller’s photos, the hermit crabs appear to be sharing crevices with several species of moray eel. One video even shows a crab crawling on top of an eel. This observation got Lemaitre thinking that perhaps the crabs and eels have some kind of “ecological association.”
Other crustaceans, most notably shrimp are well-known “cleaners” that will feed on the mucus and matter that collects on the bodies of larger animals. This is the first time, however, that a hermit crab has been observed displaying a similar kind of behavior.
Further research is needed to determine if these hermit crabs are truly cleaning the moray eels, but Lemaitre says that if his hunch is correct, it would be ”a very interesting discovery.”
Lemaitre wished to name the new species after Muller, its discoverer, but the photographer had another idea.
Muller insisted that the crab be named after her eight-year-old granddaughter, Molly and so the candy-striped hermit crab received the scientific name Pylopaguropsis mollymullerae.
Muller hopes the name will inspire her granddaughter to take care of the ocean and all the life within it.
Lemaitre believes that each new discovery is an important reminder that we must keep exploring the world.
“If we don’t know what lives out there, how can we protect it?” asks Lemaitre. “How can we manage our resources and our biodiversity? We need to understand what the pieces are in order to protect the whole.”
Lemaitre authored a report on this new species, which appears in the journal ZooKeys.