Crabs are decapod crustaceans of the infraorder Brachyura, which typically have a very short projecting "tail" (Greek: brachy = short, ura = tail), or where the reduced abdomen is entirely hidden under the thorax. They are generally covered with a thick exoskeleton, and are armed with a single pair of chelae (claws). Crabs are found in all of the world's oceans; there are also many freshwater and terrestrial crabs, particularly in tropical regions. Crabs vary in size from the pea crab, only a few millimetres wide, to the Japanese spider crab, with a leg span of up to 4 m.
True crabs have five pairs of legs, the first of which are
modified into a pair of claws and are not used for locomotion.
In all but a few crabs (for example, Raninoida), the abdomen is
folded under the cephalothorax in the adult stage. The
mouthparts of crabs are covered by flattened maxillipeds, and
the front of the carapace does not form a long rostrum. The
gills of crabs are formed of flattened plates ("phyllobranchiate"),
resembling those of shrimp, but of a different structure.
Most crabs show clear sexual dimorphism and so can be easily sexed. The abdomen, which is held recurved under the thorax, is narrow in males. In females, however, the abdomen retains a greater number of pleopods and is considerably wider. This relates to the carrying of the fertilised eggs by the female crabs (as seen in all pleocyemates). In those species in which no such dimorphism is found, the position of the gonopores must be used instead. In females, these are on the third pereiopod, or nearby on the sternum in higher crabs; in males, the gonopores are at the base of the fifth pereiopods or, in higher crabs, on the sternum nearby.
Crabs are omnivores, feeding primarily on algae, and taking any other food, including molluscs, worms, other crustaceans, fungi, bacteria and detritus, depending on their availability and the crab species. For many crabs, a mixed diet of plant and animal matter results in the fastest growth and greatest fitness.
Crabs make up 20% of all marine crustaceans caught and farmed worldwide, with over 1½ million tonnes being consumed annually. Of that total, one species accounts for one fifth: Portunus trituberculatus. Other important taxa include Portunus pelagicus, several species in the genus Chionoecetes, the blue crab (Callinectes sapidus), Charybdis spp., Cancer pagurus, the Dungeness crab (Cancer magister) and Scylla serrata, each of which provides more than 20,000 tonnes annually.
The infraorder Brachyura contains about 70 families, as many as
the remainder of the Decapoda. The evolution of crabs is
characterised by an increasing robustness of the body, and a
reduction in the abdomen. Although other groups have also
undergone similar processes of carcinisation, it is most
advanced in crabs. The telson is no longer functional in crabs,
and the uropods are absent, having probably evolved into small
devices for holding the reduced abdomen tight against the
In most decapods, the gonopores (sexual openings) are found on the legs. However, since crabs use the first two pairs of pleopods (abdominal appendages) for sperm transfer, this arrangement has changed. As the male abdomen evolved into a narrower shape, the gonopores have moved towards the midline, away from the legs, and onto the sternum. A similar change occurred, independently, with the female gonopores. The movement of the female gonopore to the sternum defines the clade Eubrachyura, and the later change in the position of the male gonopore defines the Thoracotremata. It is still a subject of debate whether those crabs where the female, but not male, gonopores are situated on the sternum form a monophyletic group.
The earliest unambiguous crab fossils date from the Jurassic, although the Carboniferous Imocaris, known only from its carapace is thought to be a primitive crab. The radiation of crabs in the Cretaceous and afterwards may be linked either to the break-up of Gondwana or to the concurrent radiation of bony fish, the main predators of crabs.
About 850 species of crab are freshwater or (semi-)terrestrial species; they are found throughout the world's tropical and semi-tropical regions. They were previously thought to be a closely related group, but are now believed to represent at least two distinct lineages, one in the Old World and one in the New World.
This Crab Page is Copyright The Animal Web Guide © 2004 - 2009 Chuck Ayoub