Strange Symmetries #20: The 16 Million Year Fiddler Crab Rave

Many decapod crustaceans have slightly asymmetrical pincers, often with one claw being chunkier and specialized for “crushing” while the other is more slender and used for “cutting”.

But fiddler crabs take this sort of asymmetry to the extreme as part of their sexual dimorphism – males have one massively oversized claw, which is used for both visual display to potential mates and for physical fights against rivals.

Some of the earliest fiddler crabs are known from the Miocene of what is now northern Brazil. Although the fossils have been given several different taxonomic names since their discovery in the 1970s (including Uca maracoani antiqua, Uca antiqua, and Uca inaciobritoi) they’re currently considered to be indistinguishable from the modern Brazilian fiddler crab, Uca maracoani, meaning that these crabs have remained externally unchanged for the last 16 million years.

Up to about 4cm in carapace width (~1.6″), modern Uca maracoani are found in coastal mangrove swamps and tidal mudflats around the northern and eastern coasts of South America – and some of these environments have also undergone little change since the Miocene. Males of the species can develop their enlarged pincer on either side of their bodies, with lefties and righties seeming to occur in equal numbers.

Strange Symmetries #13: The Hermit Crab Cycle

Hermit crabs are crustaceans that first appeared at the start of the Jurassic, about 201 million years ago. Despite their common name they aren’t actually true crabs, instead being a classic example of convergently evolving a crab-like body plan via carcinization.

They also have noticeably asymmetric bodies, with abdomens that coil to one side and differently-sized front claws.

And while modern hermit crabs are famous for inhabiting scavenged snail shells, their fossil record suggests this wasn’t always the case.

Originally, they seem to have lived in ammonite shells.

Palaeopagurus vandenengeli lived in what is now northern England during the Early Cretaceous, about 130 million years ago. Around 4-5cm long (~1.6-2″), it was found preserved inside the shell of the ammonite species Simbirskites gottschei.

Its left claw was much larger than its right, and together they would have been used to block the shell opening when it was hiding away inside. And while the exact shape of its abdomen isn’t known, it probably asymmetrically coiled to the side to accomodate the spiralling shape of the host shell.

Hermit crabs seem to have switched over to using gastropod shells by the Late Cretaceous, around 90-80 million years ago, possibly due to marine snails developing much stronger sturdier shells during this period in response to the increasing prevalence of specialized shell-crushing predators. The more upright snail shells would also have been much easier to drag around the seafloor than ammonite shells – and meant that they were ultimately less affected by the total disappearance of ammonites during end-Cretaceous mass extinction.

Almost-Living Fossils Month #08 – A Lot Of Lobsters

Hoploparia was a type of clawed lobster that first appeared in the fossil record in the Early Cretaceous about 140 million years ago. Many many different species within this genus have been found all over the world – over 100 of them have been described! – with quite a lot of anatomical diversity between them, showing that these lobsters were very good at adapting to a wide range of habitats and climates.

Although the vast majority of Hoploparia species lived just in the Cretaceous period, a small number of them did survive the end-Cretaceous mass extinction 66 million years ago. Hoploparia stokesi here was one of them, known from both the Late Cretaceous and Early Paleocene of Antarctica (~70-61 mya) – and was actually one of the first fossils ever described from the continent.

Specimens of this species are usually about 13cm long (5″), and show an evolutionary shift over time, developing much stronger claws and jaws, suggesting they were adapting their diet towards hard-shelled prey.

Various species of Hoploparia persisted on in North America, Europe, and Antarctica for the first half of the Cenozoic, but they never recovered to anywhere close to their Cretaceous levels of diversity. By the Early Miocene (~23-16 mya) there was just one known species left hanging on in Antarctica, and then they were gone.

(However, some modern lobster genera may in fact have originated from somewhere within the huge Hoploparia lineage back in the Cretaceous, so they might at least still have some close living relatives!)