A new article in the journal Marine Biology brings to light the interesting feeding habits of the deep sea crab Munidopsis andamanica, better known to the world (somewhat perplexingly) as the squat lobster. It seems that the this particular animal eats exclusively discarded wood that sinks to the seafloor -- trees, leaves, old wooden shipwrecks are all fair game:The BBC reports that report author Caroline Hoyoux says, "Munidopsis andamanica is a species only found in the deep sea and yet it eats 'terrestrial food' ... at first sight, it seems improbable."
A different species of squat lobster, but you get the idea. When you see 'langostino' on a restaurant menu, this is what it generally refers to... photo: John Wigham via flickr.
Apparently this variety of squat lobster -- there are plenty of others out there which don't much ship timber -- has bacteria and fungi inside its stomach that can break down the wood into something more digestible. This is after the crab bites off small splinters of wood and passes it "through a 'gastric mill' of strong teeth' to grind them down.
Just wait to the cellulosic ethanol people get to studying these guys...
Wood Falls Similar to Whale Falls in Creating Community
That's the quirky part of the story -- this crab eating old ships certainly has a gee-whiz factor to it -- but the more serious part is the importance of the discovery in understanding how so-called wood falls are unique underwater habitats.
Most of these wood falls are natural tree debris, as well as leaves, seagrass, coconuts, all of which have sunk and reached sea bottom. In terms of ecological significance, these wood falls are somewhat like whale falls -- dead bodies of whales that sink to the bottom -- in that they harbor highly-specialized animals that colonize the area.
More: Wood-based diet and gut microflora of a galatheid crab associated with Pacific deep sea wood falls [pay per view or subscription required]