In the deep sea, food is scarce and the menu short — so short that at least one organism eats the table along with the fare. In fact, the table may be the main course for Munidopsis andamanica, a crustacean known as a “squat lobster,” related to true lobsters.
Although the 850-plus squat lobster species are thought to be generalist scavengers, M. andamanica is the first to be found that eats wood.
If that seems an improbable diet for a deep-sea crustacean, consider that most logs that wash out to sea eventually sink, delivering precious nutrients to the seafloor in irregular loads that biologists have lately recognized as important ecosystems.
Trawling off Vanuatu in the Pacific Ocean, a team led by Caroline Hoyoux and her graduate adviser, Philippe Compère of the University of Liège in Belgium, hauled up many sunken logs from as deep as 3,000 feet.
The woodfalls were teeming with bivalves, limpets, and crustaceans, including abundant M. andamanica. Wood fragments packed the squat lobsters’ guts. Also present were bacteria and fungi, some of which appeared to be gut residents helping to digest the wood; others the squat lobsters had grazed off the old logs.
M. andamanica found elsewhere had bits of plant matter, algae, and coral in their guts. The team thinks the crustaceans specialize in hard-to-digest food, wood being their favorite fodder, garnished with bacteria or fungi. In a habitat as barren as the deep sea, it seems no meal is too tough to pass up.
The research was detailed in the journal Marine Biology.
This article was provided to LiveScience by Natural History Magazine.