Feeling Crabby?

The vaults of the Natural History Museum in Paris contain a menagerie of curious crustaceans

Grand Gallery of Evolution in the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, France
Grand Gallery of Evolution in the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, France Wikimedia Commons

Whenever Daniele Guinot receives a heavy package, which is quite often, her heart skips a beat. Inside, she knows, lies a jar of preservative and a creature of truly horrifying anatomy: claws built for ripping and shredding, eyes mounted oddly atop stalks, and a crenulated shell sprouting malicious-looking projections. To most of us, these strange creatures rarely warrant our attention, except perhaps at mealtime or if they nip our toes at the shore. But to the world’s foremost carcinologist, a researcher at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, crab diversity provides a window into the astonishing talents of Mother Nature herself.

Feast your eyes on photographs from the Paris collection, and you might glimpse the source of Guinot’s fascination. The crab shell, or carapace, may be round, ovate, triangular or quadrangular, and anchors tiny or extraordinarily long legs. The carapace may be smooth and patterned, or decked with such visual disarray that it resembles an algae-encrusted rock. The most diminutive species, the pea crab, measures only half an inch, while the leggy Japanese spider crab grows up to 12 feet across. Overall, close to 6,500 species of this opportunistic scavenger colonize just about every marine and terrestrial habitat on earth, from 20,000 feet beneath the sea to elevations above 6,000 feet. Yet despite their extraordinary variation, the basic crab form has remained the same for more than 200 million years: two claws, four pairs of walking legs, eyes on stalks and a hard carapace enclosing gills and a soft body.

The images on these pages remind us of conservationist Rachel Carson’s sage words, "The lasting pleasures of contact with the natural world are not reserved for scientists but are available to anyone who will place himself under the influence of earth, sea and sky and their amazing life."

By John F. Ross

Get the latest Science stories in your inbox.