History of the Yeti crab

Line drawing of K. hirsuta.
(Courtesy Wikimedia © 2006).

There seems to exist a common misconception that the scope of taxonomy has largely been fixed for decades, with the result that the announcement of a new species is frequently met with public astonishment. The truth, of course, is that with fewer than 2 million of this planet's estimated 10 to 100 million species having been described, novel species are discovered every single day. Despite the tireless efforts of biologists around the globe, the task of cataloging Earth's incredible biodiversity has barely begun (Bouchet 2006).

Nowhere is the disparity between popular belief and cold fact more vividly illustrated than in the story of Kiwa hirsuta, also known as the Yeti crab.

Adapted from Macpherson, et al. (1995).  Zoosystema 27(4), p. 711.
Map depicting the three sites K. hirsuta was first found.  Click image to view higher resolution. (Courtesy Zoosystema © 2005)

Yeti crabs were apparently first observed in 2001 by the scientists aboard Sonne SO-157, a German expedition commissioned to study silica-rich lava in the hydrothermal vents along the Pacific-Antarctic Ridge near Easter Island. They did not study the species in detail, however, and in fact mischaracterized the the crab as belonging to the Shinkaiinae (Stecher, et al. 2002, cited in Desbruyères, et al. 2006), a subfamily of decapod crustaceans that, like the Kiwa family, belong to family Galatheidae ("squat lobsters") and are indigenous to hydrocarbon seeps (Schweitzer and Feldmann 2008). Given the fact that no specimens were collected and the species was never described, the team's mistake was understandable.

As happens so often in science, it was not the individuals who made the initial finding who received the credit, but rather those who first succeeded in publishing their results.


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