by Joseph DeSisto
Amphipods are crustaceans, similar to tiny shrimp. There are around 10,000 known species, with more being discovered each year. Most amphipods are marine and live as scavengers or predators, swimming or scuttling after tiny particles of food or plankton. A few are predatory, and use mantis-like front legs to snap up smaller creatures.
Last week’s new species are even more bizarre: they are “associates” living on the bodies of larger animals, ranging from sea anemones to mussels to hermit crabs (Krapp-Schickel and Vader 2015). So what exactly are they doing there?
Anemone-dwelling amphipods spend their time clambering over the tentacles of their host. Sea anemone tentacles are covered in microscopic stingers, to which the amphipods (like clown fish) are immune. Being surrounded by venomous tentacles might protect the amphipods from larger predators.
In turn, amphipods probably scavenge bits of detritus, such as uneaten prey, off the body of the anemone. One amphipod, however, does things a little differently. Instead of scavenging, it lives as a parasite, feeding on the flesh of its sea anemone host (Moore et al. 1994). Regardless, all of these amphipods have grasping, hook-like front legs called gnathopods (silent G), which they use to climb over and within the bodies of other animals.
Mussel-associated amphipods are more peaceful, but not entirely welcome, guests. Mussels are filter-feeders that extract plankton from the water, so instead of eating the mussel, amphipods steal some of the daily plankton catch (Tandberg et al. 2010). They are kleptoparasites, animals that steal their food.
Mussel-dwellers belong to the genus Metopa, and have surprisingly sophisticated lives (Tandberg et al. 2010). Each mussel is home to a single mating pair of adult amphipods, who defend their home against intruders. Most species spend their entire adult lives within the shell of a single mussel. In this time they work hard to raise multiple generations, which grow together until they are ready to head out to sea and find molluscan homes of their own.
Still other amphipods are described as hermit crab associates, some living on the crab’s acquired snail shell (Krapp-Schickel and Vader 2015). At least one species eats invertebrates that land and begin to grow on the shell. Others, however, live on the bodies of the crabs themselves.
This seems like a risky move. Hermit crabs are rigorous self-cleaners, constantly scrubbing the insides of their shells with specialized, brush-like hind legs. Perhaps the amphipods, by scavenging bits of uneaten food from the crab’s body, are helpful maids to their type-A hosts. If this is the case, hermit crabs may spare their amphipod companions on purpose. We still don’t know if the crab-dwelling amphipods are helpful cleaners or true parasites — if the latter is true, they must be well-adapted to avoid detection by their hosts.
Krapp-Schickel T. and W.J.M. Vader. 2015. Stenothoids living with or on other animals (Crustacea, Amphipoda). Zoosystematics and Evolution 91(2): 215-246.
Moore P.G., P.S. Rainbow, and W. Vader. 1994. On the feeding and comparative biology of iron in coelenterate-associated gammaridean Amphipoda (Crustacea) from N. Norway. Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology 178: 205-231.
Tandberg A.H.S., C. Schandler, and F. Pleijel. 2010. First record of the association between the amphipod Metopa alderi and the bivalve Musculus. Marine Biodiversity Records 3, e. 5, 2 pp.