The Curious Yeti Crab

How a squat lobster finds home in the most extreme places

At the bottom of our ocean, more than 7,000 feet below the water, there are mid-ocean ridges—underwater mountains caused when hot lava rises beneath the seafloor and tectonic plates split apart. New seafloor is formed and these regions are where we see examples of some of the thinnest points in the Earth’s crust, and some of the hottest temperatures.

This seafloor is a hot spot of complex cycles, ejecting hot, high-pressure water-rich sulfur, metals and more. These splits in the Earth are hydrothermal vents—spewing unimaginably hot water into the bone-chilling, cold sea.

As one of the most extreme areas in the world, you may think that nothing can possibly survive the pressure, total darkness and severe temperatures, but life always finds a way and here is where the yeti crab thrives.

The yeti crab was discovered in 2005 when a team of researchers from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute and Institut français de recherche pour l’exploitation de la mer journeyed to the bottom of the South Pacific Ocean with the submarine DSV Alvin.

The crustaceans were found near the Pacific-Antarctic ridge, south of Easter Island, along hydrothermal vents. At just less than six inches long, yeti crabs have beefy and compact bodies to help them adapt to the highly competitive life on the seafloor. The habitable zone in which yeti crabs can survive is dangerously small—too close to the vents and they will instantly fry, too far and they can die of hypothermia. To stay alive, the crabs must pile on top of one another, clinging onto each other and the seafloor.

The defining characteristic of the yeti crab, however, is its “furry” claws. Their pincers are covered in blonde setae (bristle/hair-like structures) that enable them to harvest their main source of food: bacteria. Scientists found the crustaceans performed a sort of dance, waving their claws through the water to provide a constant flow of oxygen, methane and hydrogen sulfide, which helps bacteria grow.

Thus, a new family of squat lobsters, the Kiwaidae, was born. Although they are commonly known as “yeti crabs” due to their resemblance to the infamous, abominable snowman, scientists called this new species Kiwa hirsuta—“kiwa” coming from the name of a Polynesian deity that serves as a guardian of the ocean and “hirsuta” meaning “hairy” in Latin.

Since 2005, five more crustaceans have officially joined the yeti crab family with the potential of even more undiscovered yeti crabs hiding in some of the most extreme places on Earth.

There is still so much we don’t know about these crustaceans and the seafloor. It’s up to us to ensure our ocean is protected in order to preserve these incredible species and that we always support science and science-based solutions so that we can continue to learn from these amazing discoveries.

Our work is focused on solving some of the greatest threats facing our ocean today. We bring people, science and policy together to champion innovative solutions and fight for a sustainable ocean.
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