Science

The Real Star of the Shackleton Shipwreck

Meet a mysterious crab that can somehow live in extremely cold water.

White silhouette of a crab with a halo over it
Illustration by Slate based on photo by Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust

Wednesday’s discovery of Ernest Henry Shackleton’s Endurance ticked all the boxes for a prime shipwreck: The ship is extremely well preserved; it has an old-timey look that evokes swashbuckling fantasies; and it was found in a hard-to-reach area, which makes the discovery all the more exciting.

The stars of the discovery, however, were the gorgeous sea creatures that had made the ship their home. Some of these were cataloged in a viral Twitter thread by Huw Griffiths, a marine biogeographer with the British Antarctic Survey and science communicator. The sea lily? Stellar. The starfish? Beautiful. The sea anemone that appeared to be piloting the ship? An incredible feat for a sea anemone.

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But one of them immediately stood out to me for its spidery appearance, and the distinction of being one of the few life forms aboard with the capability of crawling. Allow me to introduce you to my favorite denizen of the Endurance:

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Dare I say the Shackleton wreck crab, thriving at 10,000 feet deep and in extremely low temperatures, is exactly the inspiration we need as we navigate this tricky and dark world? I have taken the liberty of naming this crab “Crab.” Crab is a bright spot. Crab is my new best friend. Crab is everything to me—or at least the newest thing I incessantly bother my friends about. So I gave them a break and reached out to Griffiths (who was not involved with the Endurance22 expedition), hoping that he could tell me all about Crab.

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First off, we don’t know exactly what kind of crab Crab is. It’s likely that it’s a member of the Munidopsis genus, which is a family of “squat lobsters,” a type of crustacean. They make deep waters their home, and Griffiths told me that scientists previously had found one off the West Antarctic Peninsula. But one in the extremely cold depths of the Weddell Sea is unprecedented and “a real surprise.” As more photos and more information come in, Griffiths told me that it might be possible to identify specifically what species of crab it is. Or it could be a new crab entirely. “Lots of things are new to science when we go down there,” says Griffiths. ”Somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of what we catch is a new species.”

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Whether it turns out to be completely new or not, this is for sure: Crab is resilient. The deep Antarctic sea is a very harsh place for anything to live because it’s so cold. “One of the old rules of Antarctic things is it’s too cold for this and it’s too cold for that,” Griffiths said, noting that Crab breaks that rule, which is very exciting. Griffiths told me that the temperatures tend to have a sedative effect on animals: The chemistry involved in keeping a crab alive slows down a lot in low temperatures. The frigid water is a much better place for sea lilies and other stationary species that were spotted in the picture, what Griffiths called “living fossils” because of their ancient, prehistoric origins. But when it comes to animals like sharks and crabs, “they become rarer because they can’t swim away. They don’t have any defenses.” This creates a largely predator-free environment, where all of the sedentary creatures can thrive without being eaten.

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But if you’re wondering if Crab could threaten the peace aboard the wreck, rest assured, Griffiths didn’t think so. As far as predators go, “these squat lobsters probably aren’t a huge threat. There’s not millions of them roaming around eating everything.” (Though Griffiths did point out that the photos taken of the wreck show that there might be more crabs than just Crab.)

The harmonious scene on the sunken ship has another threat, though. Climate change, said Griffith, absolutely can affect deep sea life. The organisms at the bottom of the sea depend on organisms nearer to the surface. Plankton at the surface make the food that eventually sinks down to the ocean floor, so if conditions change near the top, like less sea ice, then that could affect life near the bottom. Ironically, the reason the Endurance22 team was able to get to the wreck at all is because the sea ice was at a record low, and they were able to access parts of the ocean that normally wouldn’t be accessible. It’s bittersweet, but Griffiths told me that “it’s pretty good that we’ve got people finding out what’s there before it all gets ruined by climate change— before things change too much.”

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I did have one last question, at the behest of one of my friends whom I dragged into my Crab obsession: Is Crab happy? Is Crab having a good time down there? Griffiths thinks it probably is. He told me that most of what’s on the seafloor is flat mud, and things are much more spread out. But on the wreck, there’s much more density of life than you would normally find, so if that crab feeds on sponges or anemones, “then it’s like a huge buffet that [crabs] can just walk around on.” But again, there aren’t enough crabs to demolish that buffet. “I think all the animals were quite happy and having a good time,” said Griffiths. And in turn, I’m having a good time watching them.

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