Rich Aronson, head of the biological sciences department, received $760,000 in a second round of funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for his research. The grant will support two oceanographic cruises, planned for the 2013 and 2014 austral-summer seasons, to chart the progress of giant crabs massing in the shallow marine waters of the continental shelf of Antarctica. The grant is from the NSF Antarctic Organisms and Ecosystems program, which is part of the Division of Antarctic Sciences within the Office of Polar Programs.
Aronson sees cause for concern. “The king crabs are predators that eat most types of hard-shelled prey. If the crabs make it onto the Antarctic shelf, it is highly likely they will disrupt the unique seafloor communities, which currently live just a few hundred meters shallower than the massed crab populations,” he said. The shell-cracking crabs, fish, sharks and rays that dominate bottom communities in temperate and tropical zones have been shut out of Antarctica for millions of years because it is simply too cold for them.
But this situation is about to change. “Populations of predatory king crabs are already living in deeper water,” said Aronson. “And increasing ship traffic is introducing exotic invaders all the time. When ships unload ballast water in the Southern Ocean that surrounds Antarctica, larvae from all over the world get introduced to the ecosystem.”