This Unusual Crab Has ‘Candy Cane’ Legs

Image: Rafael Lemaitre and Ellen Muller

This tiny creature was recently discovered poking its head out of a small shell in the shallow depths of Bonaire National Marine Park.

Photographer and naturalist Ellen Muller first encountered the species during a routine dive through the reef bed situated just off the island of Bonaire in Venezuela. The two-millimeter long crab was found living in cracks and crevices alongside other marine life including moray eels and flaming reef lobster, persisting at an average depth of 14 meters below the surface.

Researchers have named the animal Pylopaguropsis mollymullerae and with permission of the government brought back its first live specimens to the Smithsonian Institution for scientific analysis. It is only the second species of Pylopaguropsis found to date within the Paguridae family. 

The unusual crustacean boasts bright white and red candy-striped legs and a large, unusual claw. Its colorful appearance attributes to its common reference as the “candy-striped hermit crab”.

Image: Rafael Lemaitre and Ellen Muller

The crab’s right pincher claw is the most fascinating characteristic due to its massive size in comparison to the rest of the body and ice cream scoop-like shape. While the exact function of the claw is unknown, it could be used as either a general feeding mechanism or a means for the animal to move across the ocean floor.

The crab’s natural habitat within the dens of moray eels suggests it may behave as a type of tropical cleaner fish for these large organisms. The animal’s bright colors similar to other cleaner invertebrates support this hypothesis as well as the physical observation of one individual crawling across the body of a broad-banded moray.

Boxer crabs have a similar symbiotic relationship with sea anemones.

“The idea that this animal might be cleaning moray eels is intriguing,” Jan Pechenik, a marine biologist at Tufts University reported. “The evidence is not entirely convincing yet. But this would be the first example of a hermit crab cleaner if that’s actually the case.”

These findings are published in the journal ZooKeys.

Watch this amazing footage captured by photographer and videographer Ellen Muller: