King Crab
Invasion of the Giant Red King Crab. Image: NOAA Photo Library/Flickr/CC BY

Giant Red King Crabs have been invading the Antarctic abyss and altering an ecosystem that has not changed in millions of years. Traditionally, the abyss has been too cold for the gigantic crustaceans. Scientists are calling it one of the clearest indications of global warming to date.

The Palmer Deep

The crabs, some more than three feet across, are moving in and eating the residents of a unique ecosystem known as the Palmer Deep, according to research conducted by scientists at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. The area is a 4,300-foot deep basin off the Antarctic Peninsula. The findings were published recently in the biological journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Spotted by submersible

The proliferation of the voracious crabs was discovered in March when Genesis, a remotely operated submersible, was sent into Palmer Deep to observe life down there. Researchers were not expecting to see the crabs, yet there they were, living and reproducing in great numbers. Judging by their density and the number of tracks, scientists estimate their number to be around 1.5 million.

Temperature rising

The species cannot survive in temperatures colder than 1.4 degrees Celsius, or 34.52 degrees Fahrenheit. The lowest water temperature in the area in 1982 was 34.2 degrees Fahrenheit. Last year it was recorded as 34.6.

Craig Smith, the project leader at the University of Hawaii, said:

“Our best guess is there was an event, or maybe more than one, where warmer water flushed up across the shelf and carried some of the larvae into the basin. … We think the crabs are venturing up into shallow waters to feed.”

When it comes to bottom-dwelling organisms, the King Crab is the top of the food chain. Referring to the unique ecosystem of specialized creatures that have survived in the cold, deep waters of the Palmer Deep, Smith said: “We would expect extinctions in some of these organisms.”

Invasion predicted

The King Crab’s invasion into the Antarctic basin was projected by scientists three years ago, but it has become a reality much faster than anybody guessed.

‘Clearest examples of climate change’

A study published recently in the scientific journal Science indicated that global climate changes are driving many species of animals toward the poles in a constant search for food as their environments change. The leader of that research, professor Chris Thomas, told The Guardian that it is “one of the clearest examples of climate change in action.”

Sources

Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/12/giant-red-crab-invasion-climate-change_n_956090.html?ir=Weird%20News
Washington Post: http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/giant-red-crabs-move-into-antarctic-abyss-threatening-ancient-ecosystem/2011/09/08/gIQAXTtRNK_story.html
BBC: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-14803840

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