Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Zombie Crabs – Why Can’t We Get Us Some of Those?

I originally wrote this article for the Washington Sea Grant Crab Team newsletter, and you can read this and much more crazy things about marine life on the Crab Team webpage.


The yellow blob under the abdominal flap is not eggs, but the
extern of a female barnacle, Sacculina carcini. (By Auguste
Le Roux (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons).


In Europe, millions of zombie green crabs are roaming the shore. From the outside, you might not even realize they are brain dead, no longer truly a green crab, but have been transformed into a skittering, feasting, parasite-producing machine. Their metabolism has been co-opted, their reproductive system re-appropriated, their crabby will subjugated to the whims of the intruder they harbor – the parasitic barnacle Sacculina carcini.

Barnacle? That’s right. For these crabs infection is the stuff of horror films, but the monster in this case is not an animal we typically think of as gross or dangerous – though anyone who has tried to walk barefoot on a barnacle-encrusted rock might disagree. This species is one of a group of parasites called Rhizocephalans (meaning “root headed,” which will become clear later on). As free-swimming larvae, they look very much like other barnacles, progressing from a nauplius stage to a cypris – but here they diverge.

The great biological illustrator Ernst Haeckel visualized
what the root-like intern of Sacculina carcini would
look like inside the crab. And the blob of the extern
is exposed by the folded back abdomen (Wikipedia).
Imagine this: you are a European green crab, minding your own business, maybe poking around looking for some tasty polychaete worms or clams to eat, and you feel a slight tickle when something microscopic lands at the base of a hair on one of your legs, clinging to you by means of an antenna-like appendage. But you’re too distracted cruising around the shore to notice when the larvae — which has shed its shell, legs, eyes, and brain as it metamorphosed into a kentrogon (sounds like some kind of alien race, but is basically a sac of cells with a needle where the head used to be) — injects itself into your body through the base of that hair, and is released. Soon, the parasite attaches to your digestive system, and begins to grow thread-like structures that wrap around and along your nerves, like ivy growing up a tree – called the interna. The interna ultimately spread throughout your entire body, like the roots of a tree filling up a pot.

You might start to notice something going on when you begin to look like a female crab – that is, if you weren’t already female. One of the most bizarre effects of being infected with this barnacle is that, even though both sexes can be infected, male crabs are feminized by the parasite, causing them to have smaller claws and wider abdomens, like females (read a study on host feminization), paving the way for what happens next.

Gah! The life cycle of Sacculina carcini, from Goddard et al. 2005.
The barnacles that infect crabs are always female, and they use the crab as an egg factory, feeding off the crab and ultimately growing out through the underside of the crab to create a blobby structure called an externa, which is a large sac of barnacle reproductive tissue. The crab carries the externa just as if it were his or her own eggs. The barnacle eggs in the externa are fertilized by one or two free-swimming male cyprids, and then released as the next generation of zombifying parasites.


Needless to say, when you are carrying a sack of parasites on your abdomen, there’s no room for eggs of your own. Infected green crabs, both male and female, are fully castrated by the parasite. In addition, infection ultimately halts the process of molting, so crabs not only can’t grow any larger, but they also can’t replace any lost limbs. In spite of its gruesomeness, infection is not a death sentence for European green crabs; about half of the crabs infected in a laboratory experiment survived infection for at least 3 months. In the native range, some crabs also show scars on their carapace from carrying previous externae. However, those crabs can never recover their reproductive ability, and the female parasite can create multiple externae for the remaining life span of the crab.

How does this fit in with the global invasion of green crabs? In the native range of Carcinus maenas, about 16 percent of crabs are infected with Sacculina carcini (read the study), and given that about half of infected crabs die, this parasite could be a substantial part of population regulation. However, S. carcini has not followed European green crab to either the east or west coast of North America. It’s likely that the crabs that first traveled across the Atlantic Ocean, and later across the United States, were too young to bring the barnacle along as a hitchhiker. Additionally, because the male barnacle that fertilizes the female’s externa is free-swimming, the male and female barnacles need to make it to the new range at just the right times, but in different ways, which could be a very unlikely coincidence.

The lack of this, and other parasites, is one possible explanation for why European green crabs are larger here on the West Coast than they are in their native range (read the study). Combine a lack of parasites with relatively cold water (read the study), and it turns out that the biggest green crabs in the world have been found in the Pacific Northwest. Some claim to fame!

Your mind might already be leaping to the next logical question: Can we bring this parasite to help control populations of the European green crab on the West Coast? In the Salish Sea we do have native species of Rhizocephalan parasites, even some in the same group as this one. Nevertheless, it turns out bringing Sacculina carcini over is probably not a good idea. For those of you familiar with the history of cane toads in Australia, you’ll be relieved to hear that researchers here have been doing their homework when it comes to this parasite.

In a laboratory experiment in Santa Barbara, scientists tested whether several species of native crab could also be infected by Sacculina carcini. While more of the parasites settled on European green crab, when given the choice, they also settled on Dungeness crab and two species of shore crab that are found in our area (Hemigrapsus nudus and H. oregonensis). Dungeness crab were more likely to become infected with the parasite than any of the other species of crab, even when relatively few barnacles settled on them. What’s more, all of the native crabs that became infected died, compared to only about half of the European green crabs that were used for comparison, and many of the native crabs showed neurological impairment as a result of infection. A number of questions remain about whether the same patterns would occur in the field, but for now, the risk to native crabs is significant enough to warrant caution.

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