Smith's swimming crab (Charybdis smithii)

Hello, Smith’s swimming crab!

One of the things I love about False Bay, and about Long Beach in particular, is the tendency for creatures from all over South Africa’s coastline to end up here, often tropical marine life that got caught in the warm Agulhas current, and then within the circulation of False Bay, ending up just behind the Simons Town harbour wall.

Smith's swimming crab (Charybdis smithii) Smith’s swimming crab (Charybdis smithii)

Thus it was, early in March, that we discovered several adult specimens of Smith’s swimming crab (Charybdis smithii) at Long Beach when we went for a dive. One or two were already dead, and the rest were struggling either on the sand, or in the shallows, looking unhealthy. The water temperature at the time was about 17 degrees.

The first hint that this unusual and rarely-seen visitor had arrived on our shores was a series of social media posts, from January, in one or two of the fishing groups I follow on facebook. (These are excellent places to keep tabs on what’s happening in parts of the ocean I might not routinely visit, and there’s a wealth of knowledge and experience among the members.) Here’s a conversation between local fishermen about seeing large numbers of adult Smith’s swimming crabs just off Cape Point (also facebook). You can also see some photos of one of the crabs from Sea-Change here (facebook), taken on 22 January in False Bay.

Smith's swimming crab (Charybdis smithii) Smith’s swimming crab (Charybdis smithii)

At the same time as these social media posts, there was an influx of small, red crabs on the other side of the Cape Peninsula, at Long Beach in Kommetjie. (But more on that in another post.) Two Oceans says that Smith’s swimming crabs were first described in False Bay in 1838, and then again in 1978, 1983, and 1993. This facebook thread suggests that they may have been last seen off Muizenberg around 2005-2006.

Smith's swimming crab (Charybdis smithii) Smith’s swimming crab (Charybdis smithii)

I read more about Smith’s swimming crab in two papers: this one (Romanov et al), from 2009, and this one (Van Couwelaar et al) from 1997. The more recent paper updates many of the findings of the earlier one. Both teams of scientists behind these papers used trawl data from pelagic cruises to learn about the distribution and life history of these crabs.

Smith’s swimming crab is a pelagic crab that spends the vast majority of its one year, monsoon-driven life cycle in the water column. They are endemic to the western Indian ocean, and are usually found in the area bounded by the Arabian sea (which is west of India) and the latitude of Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania (about 7 degrees south of the equator), and from the east African coast, across east to the Maldives. They may congregate in huge patches, larger than tens of square kilometres, and may reach a biomass of more than 130 kilograms per square kilometre. These swarms are densest between June and September. During July, their concentration can peak at more than 15,000 individuals per square kilometre.

Smith's swimming crab (Charybdis smithii) Smith’s swimming crab (Charybdis smithii)

The crabs congregate on the seafloor of the continental shelf during the months of September to December, mating late in the year. No adult crabs are usually seen between April and June (Van Couwelaar et al speculate that the adults die after breeding), at which time, after metamorphosis, the swarms again become apparent in the western Indian ocean. The crabs grow to about 7.5 centimetres carapace width.

The crabs seem to perform a diel migration, moving deeper in the water column during the day (down to 350 metres’ depth), and returning to the surface at night. They swim continuously and are voracious predators in order to support the high metabolic demand created by this constant activity. They are able to regenerate all their limbs except for their swimming legs (Van Couwelaar et al deduced this in much the same way as Abraham Wald decided which parts of World War II bombers to reinforce – no crabs with partially grown swimming legs were caught in their trawls).

These crabs are important prey for yellowtail, as for other pelagic fish species such as blue sharks, yellowfin tuna and bigeye tuna. The fishermen of False Bay observed that they made excellent bait.

Smith's swimming crab (Charybdis smithii) Smith’s swimming crab (Charybdis smithii)

So what brings Smith’s swimming crab this far south? False Bay is way out of their range. This paper (Chapman, 1988) suggests that prior arrivals of these crabs on our shores have co-incided with weaker than usual summer south easterly winds (which has definitely been a feature of late 2018 and the start of 2019 – we had a gloriously wind-still summer for the most part) and the westward movement of warm water containing the crabs. We did have a spell of unusual westerly wind just prior to these crabs’ arrival.

A fascinating 1984 paper by George Branch describes a temperature anomaly during the summer of 1982-83. This particular Cape summer was characterised by very little of the typical south easterly winds, leading to reduced upwelling, and relatively high sea temperatures (Duffy et al, Effects of the 1982-3 Warm Water Event on the Breeding of South African Seabirds, 1984). The exceptionally warm water on the south and west coasts of South Africa caused mass strandings of some tropical animals (such as portuguese man ‘o war), mortalities of others (such as black mussels), changes in abundance of some species, and extensions of some species’ geographic range. For example, an exceptional number of juvenile turtles washed up on the beaches of False Bay, several months before the usual start of the usual turtle stranding season (which is, very loosely speaking, March-July). Prof Branch records that large numbers of healthy, adult Smith’s swimming crab washed up at Cape Hangklip, and smaller numbers at Boulders Beach, Strand, Milnerton and Blouberg. About 62% of the crabs were female, and many of them survived in aquaria for some time after stranding.

In short, it seems that we had our own little temperature anomlay, however brief, in early 2019, and the pulse of warm water brought with it these rarely seen (in Cape Town) crabs. What luck to spot this unusual visitor!

There are some lovely pictures of Smith’s swimming crab, healthy and in mid water, taken off Tanzania, here.

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Lapsed mathematician, creator of order, formulator of hypotheses. Lover of the ocean, being outdoors, the bush, reading, photography, travelling (especially in Africa) and road trips.

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