King Crabs Are About to Take Over Antarctica

As oceans warm, Antarctica braces for an invasion of shell-cracking crabs

King Crab
Alexander Semenov/Corbis

The waters of the Antarctic coast are pretty dang chilly — and normally crab-free. In fact, it’s been millions of years since crabs have been able to live in the fragile, frigid ecosystem that clings to the continent’s icy shores. But all that’s about to change: New research shows that climate change may enabling an invasion of king crabs that could crack apart the chilly ecosystem for good.

Global warming is doing a number on sea life around the world, say scientists, and it turns out that Antarctica is no exception. In a new paper, Florida Institute of Technology biologists reveal that warming waters off the Antarctic coast are making the area hospitable to shell-cracking king crabs.

The authors note that King crabs were recently discovered adjacent to the Antarctic slope — and now that coastal waters have warmed, there’s nothing to keep them from moving in. That’s bad news for marine life like mollusks, sea stars and other organisms with soft bodies — and the change could have far-reaching effects.

“Because other creatures on the continental shelf have evolved without shell-crushing predators, if the crabs moved in they could radically restructure the ecosystem,” lead author Richard Aronson warns in a release. As crabs migrate into shallow waters, they won’t find barriers in terms of ocean salinity, food resources or floor sediments, either, say the scientists. That could make Antarctica a king crab free-for-all — great for the shell-cracking crabs, but not so happy for an ecosystem that is already quite fragile.

Crabs aren’t the only thing threatening the frozen continent. In 2012, a policy letter published in the journal Science suggested that despite treaties designed to protect Antarctica, the continent is under threat by overfishing, tourism and even scientific research. Given that global warming has already raised the continent’s mean annual temperature by 3.2°C (5.7°F) in the past 60 years, it’s likely that more change is in the cards. So buckle your seatbelts — Antarctica’s invasion of the crabs could be just the beginning.


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