Are you ready? I’ve been collecting these photos for a long time. Now, finally, I think I have enough to deliver this marine fashion show to you – the best dressed of the NE Pacific Ocean!
Decorator crabs are camo-crabs. They pluck bits of life from their surroundings and attach it to themselves. AND, if their surroundings change, they change their outfit.
This is highly functional fashion. Not only does this covering of life allow the crabs to hide from potential predators, it also apparently changes the way the crabs feel and taste in a way that deters their predators. Sponges taste bad or are even toxic to many predators and animals like hydroids and other “cnidarians” have stinging cells. Thereby, if you cover yourself with sponges or cnidarians, predators be gone!
Indeed, even though decorator crab species look like walking gardens, often what they attach are not algae but other animals – hydroids, sponges and bryozoans.
Additional bonuses of carrying other organisms on your back may be:
- You have potential snacks within a pincher’s reach.
- Your camouflage allows you to get closer to your prey.
- You are carrying weapons!
From A Snail’s Odyssey: “Apart from passive camouflage from potential predators, other functions of the behaviour may include disguise for closer approach to prey, and provision of tools for active defense, such as a branches of hydroids containing functional stinging cells or pieces of sponges or tunicates containing toxic chemicals.”
Note too that not all growth on the back of crabs is the result of decorating and remember that crabs moult, crawling out the back of their shells in order to grow. Also from A Snail’s Odyssey: “In some cases these camouflagings result from settlement of spores and larvae . . . . Passive buildup of growths is greater with increasing age as moulting frequency decreases. Also, in many species there is a final or terminal moult which, if the species’ exoskeleton is receptive to settlement of larvae and spores, leads to an even greater build-up of cover.”
“Spider crab” (superfamily Majoidea) species are the ones that most often adorn themselves. From Greg Jensen‘s Crabs and Shrimps of the Pacific Coast: “Many spider crabs . . . mask themselves with algae or encrusting organisms so that they can hide in plain sight. The decorator crabs are equipped with curved setae much like the hook part of Velcro fasteners: after shredding material a bit with their mandibles, they press it into place. The largest species tend to stop actively decorating once they outgrow most of their predators.”
Crab predators include the Giant Pacific Octopus and fish species like Cabezon, some rockfish, Surfperch, Wolf Eel and the Staghorn Sculpin. Of course, at low tide, birds and mammals are also predators.
Hoping this adds to the wonder, connection and respect for our marine neighbours. Enjoy the rest of the show!
[For research on decorator crabs with great diagrams explaining how how attachment occurs see this link.]
Decorator crab species in the NE Pacific include:
- Graceful Decorator Crab – Oregonia gracilis
- Graceful Kelp Crab – Pugettia gracilis
- Longhorn Decorator Crab – Chorilia longipes
- Other species too will sometimes put a bit of camouflage on their rostrum e.g. Northern Kelp Crab – Pugettia producta