It's good to be the king ... crab, that is. But it's not so good for species that aren't prepared for an onslaught of the voracious predators.
King crabs are expanding their undersea kingdoms into parts of the Antarctic shelf and devouring whole ecosystems in the process.
Sea lilies, brittle stars, sea urchins and other species of echinoderm had thrived for 14 million years in the cold depths of the Antarctic shelf, free of of skeleton-crushing predators. But warmer climes are allowing the king crabs (Neolithodes yaldwyni) to go on a feeding frenzy in new territory.
A recent study of the Palmer Deep basin, off West Antarctica, found that the crabs had spread into the area, forming large breeding populations and wiping out the echinoderms as they went. The research was published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
"This is a very interesting discovery for several reasons," said Craig Smith, of the University of Hawaii, Manoa, in a press release.
"First, it provides evidence that king crabs can now disperse across the Antarctic shelf, and reproduce in at least some Antarctic shelf waters. It also suggests that these predatory king crabs will cause a major reduction in seafloor biodiversity as they invade Antarctic habitats, because they appear to be eating all the echinoderms in the Palmer Deep," said Smith.