23 July 2014

Way down south: stumbling across a sand crab (Lepidopa websteri)

“Hey Meera, check this out.”

Not as powerful or concise as Archimedes’s “Eureka!”, but that was what I said at the moment of discovery – exactly two years ago today! – that led to my newest paper.

I have been making regular trips to collect sand crabs on South Padre Island for a few years now (e.g., Murph and Faulkes 2013). A couple of years back, I had a summer intern, Meera (pictured), who was working on the parasites of the local species, Lepidopa benedicti (just out; Joseph and Faulkes 2014). I thought it was important that she see the animals in their native habitat, so she came out to the beach with me to collect.

Somewhere along the way, I turned over a shovel of sand, as I do, and I saw antennae sticking out of the sand.

Even as I reached down, I recognized instantly that this was something unusual. The antennae were way longer than usual. I had it in my hands, and that was when I said, “Hey Meera, check this out.”

I jotted it down in my notebook with three little words: “Super long antennae.”

I’d forgotten until I did this post that this animal was the last one of the day before we packed it up and drove back to the main UTPA campus.

We took it back to the lab, and it was getting late in the afternoon. It wasn’t until the next morning that I sat down with a dissecting microscope and looked at the definitive guide to sand crabs, Chris Boyko’s magnificent monograph (Boyko 2002). (In retrospect,this was dumb, because the animal could have died overnight.)

Meera and another student, Karina, were in the lab, and I turned around and announced to them, “New species.”

It wasn’t a species new to science; it was Lepidopa websteri, described in 1903. But it was a new species for the region. I had made a lot of maps of the distribution of sand crabs species in the Gulf of Mexico, and I knew that Lepidopa websteri had never been found this far south.

Then I started taking a lot of pictures. It is hard to get good pictures of the entire animal, because the antennae are so long. I’m still not happy with the pictures I got, but they are better than most depictions of this species (more on this in a moment).

Because I knew this species was rarely collected (noted in the Boyko monograph, which I quote in the paper), and I am in a department with several ecologists, I knew that range extensions could be published. The advice I got was that Crustaceana was the logical choice, because they have a history of publishing notes on range extensions.

Given that I found this animal two years ago, why did it take so long for this paper to appear? Unlike another recent sand crab paper of mine (don’t get me started), the time spent getting this one out had nothing to do with the publisher.

I spent a lot of time trying to “add value” to this paper. I was confident that it could be published as a note, but I do like to have something more substantial when possible. I spent months with students and colleagues trying to include two other things in this paper. One addition kept having technical failures, and the data were never clean enough to publish. The second addition was completed, but none of the reviewers liked it. I took that out, turned the longer paper back into a note, and will try to find a home for that in another journal.

Funny story.

Before the paper came out, I did have a chance to talk about this. Back in January 2013, I gave a public talk at the World Birding Center on South Padre Island. I talked about sand crabs in general, and how I found Lepidopa websteri, which had never been recorded on South Padre Island before.

After my talk, I walked around the inside of the Birding Center. I’d visited the Birding Center before, but had mostly walked around outside. Imagine my surprise when I found this on display:

Here I was saying, “Nobody’s found Lepidopa websteri here on South Padre Island before!” and there’s this picture, which must have been there for years. Good to be proven right for a change, given that the last time I’d seen sand crabs on a sign, I pointed out so many errors that it was taken down soon afterwards. I can overlook that these animals don’t build burrows, and there is no solid evidence their antennae act as straws.

I am betting that the artist was working from a preserved specimen, though (click to enlarge)...

When I mentioned on Twitter that this paper was out, someone noted that the paper was paywalled within minutes. True, but I’m pleased that Brill has a much more reasonable publishing and copyright agreement than many other publishers:

The Author may post the post-print version of the Contribution on his/her own personal website free of charge with the appropriate acknowledgment and link to the Brill website. This means the Contribution may be shown exactly as it appears in print.

This means that if you want a PDF of this paper, you can find it at DoctorZen.net!

This paper reminds me of the value of just looking. You never know what you’ll find.

Related posts

Building or beast?
Public talk at World Birding Center next week! 
Tuesday Crustie: Oh no it isn’t


Faulkes Z. 2014. A new southern record for a sand crab, Lepidopa websteri Benedict, 1903 (Decapoda, Albuneidae). Crustaceana: 87(7): 881-885. http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/15685403-00003326

Joseph M, Faulkes Z. 2014. Nematodes infect, but do not manipulate digging by, sand crabs, Lepidopa benedicti. Integrative and Comparative Biology 54(2): 101-107. http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/icb/icu064

Murph JH, Faulkes Z. 2013. Abundance and size of sand crabs, Lepidopa benedicti (Decapoda: Albuneidae), in South Texas. The Southwestern Naturalist 58(4): 431-434. http://dx.doi.org/10.1894/0038-4909-58.4.431  


Gareth said...

I found something a lot like this on a beach in San Diego a couple of weeks ago. (It was lying on its back and apparently stuck on dense sand. It burrowed away quickly when we put it down in the surf.) I'd never seen anything like it, but couldn't find a picture that looked right on Google. "Sand crab" was the closest I could get to an identification. There's not much on Wikipedia, either. I guess that I found a related species.

Zen Faulkes said...

There are two species around San Diego, according to Boyko (2002). One is Lepidopa californica, very similar looking to what is here, but it is not very abundant, so it's unlikely to be that.

I'm guessing you might have ran across the spiny sand crab, Blepharipoda occidentalis, which made up the bulk of my Ph.D. research.