Working with blue crabs, biologists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have discovered what may turn out to be a previously unrecognized, fundamental and widespread support mechanism in crabs, lobsters, insects and other arthropods that periodically shed their hard external skeletons.
Doctoral student Jennifer R.A. Taylor and William M. Kier, professor of biology, have found that rather than being flaccid and mostly immobile after molting, crabs switch to whats called hydrostatic support. That very different "skeleton" allows the creatures to move around efficiently, hide and even defend themselves during the week or so it takes for their soft, newly grown shells to stiffen completely.
A report on the discovery appears as the cover story in the July 11 issue of the journal Science. To their knowledge, the work is the first to show animals switching back and forth between two different skeleton forms. "This is an exciting concept for us because its not something that we thought animals could do," Kier said. "Crabs certainly are more vulnerable without the tough body armor they grow to protect themselves, but they are not at all helpless. It turns out that they can run around, swim and exert considerable force."
David Williamson | EurekAlert!
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