A crab species that was recently discovered in Australia fashions itself massive hats and coats made from living sponges, which makes the crustacean look like a wonderfully squeezable stuffed toy.
(Don't be fooled, though — there's a tough exoskeleton beneath all the shaggy fluff!)
A family first spotted the crab, the newly named Lamarckdromia beagle, when it washed up on a beach near the city of Denmark in Western Australia. They sent the specimen to Andrew Hosie, curator of the crustacea and worms collections at the Western Australian Museum in Perth, who recognized the animal as some kind of sponge crab, albeit a "pretty unusual" one.
"The extreme fluffiness was the give away for us," Hosie told Live Science in an email. "The sponge crabs are often hairy, but it is more like felt or velvet, rather than this complete shaggy coat."
Members of the sponge crab family (Dromiidae) use their sharp front claws to collect bits of sponges and ascidians — filter-feeders such as sea squirts — and use specialized back legs to hold these trimmings above their heads. In time, these trimmings accumulate to form a kind of tight-fitted cap over the crab, helping the animal avoid being spotted by predatory fish, other crabs and octopuses that might eat it. Sponges are also known to produce noxious chemicals, which likely make the crab a less tempting snack for predators, Hosie said.
Upon receiving the sponge-covered specimen, Hosie contacted Colin McLay, a retired marine biologist and former associate professor at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, who has studied sponge crabs for decades. McLay confirmed that the crab was a previously-unknown species.
The team then compared the crustacean with other members of the Lamarckdromia genus housed in the Western Australian Museum's collections. In doing so, they uncovered four additional L. beagle specimens that had been collected in various coastal locations between 1925 and 1983, but hadn't yet been described or flagged as the same species. Together, these specimens suggest that L. beagle can be found in shallow, subtidal waters between Hopetoun and Cape Naturaliste on Western Australia's south coast, Hosie said.
The fluffy crab species' name commemorates the HMS Beagle, the vessel that in 1836 carried British naturalist Charles Darwin to Albany, Australia, during its second survey expedition. "This voyage is considered to have made a profound impact on Darwin, leading him on his way to formulating his theory of natural selection," Hosie said.
The name "beagle" also suits the newfound crab species because the animal's fluffy coat has the same reddish-brown color as the markings on the face and shoulders of a beagle, he added.
The researchers described the new crab species April 28 in the journal Zootaxa.
Originally published on Live Science.
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Nicoletta Lanese is the health channel editor at Live Science and was previously a news editor and staff writer at the site. She holds a graduate certificate in science communication from UC Santa Cruz and degrees in neuroscience and dance from the University of Florida. Her work has appeared in The Scientist, Science News, the Mercury News, Mongabay and Stanford Medicine Magazine, among other outlets. Based in NYC, she also remains heavily involved in dance and performs in local choreographers' work.