An underwater expedition to study flaming reef lobsters in the Caribbean has led to a chance encounter with another kind of colorful crustacean. The newly discovered candy striped hermit crab is named so for its candy cane-colored legs, and its features have researchers suspecting that it could even be the first hermit crab to engage in "cleaning" of other fish.

Underwater photographer Ellen Muller happened upon the new species while diving in the National Marine Park in the Caribbean island of Bonaire, on the hunt for images of the flaming red lobsters. Muller got the shot of the lobster, but found that her image had been photobombed by an unidentified hermit crab.

So Muller returned to investigate and managed to photograph more of these mysterious new species scuttling around crevices shared with moray eels. With the blessing of the local government, a few specimens were collected and taken to the Smithsonian Institution for a closer inspection.

The discovery is made all the more remarkable by the fact that these specimens only measured around 2 or 3 mm apiece (about 0.1 in), which, when partnered with their nocturnal behavior, perhaps explains how they've managed to stay undetected until now. The candy striped hermit crab also features a scoop-like right pincer that is oversized relative to its body. While the crab can be seen using it to push itself along, it is unknown whether the pincer serves other functions as well.

The scientists are interested to learn more about this enigmatic ocean crawler. In at least one instance, it was seen crawling across the body of moray eel, possibly eating mucus or other food, suggesting that there could be some kind of relationship between the two.

Hermit crabs have never been documented to engage in "cleaning" behavior, where smaller creatures helpfully clean parasites or other organisms from larger fish. But the bright colors and long, hairy antenna of the candy striped hermit crab are typical of crustaceans that partake in this pastime, according to the researchers, so they plan on carrying out further studies to find out what exactly this new creature is up to.

A paper describing the new species was published in the journal ZooKeys, and you can see it in action in the video below.

Source: Smithsonian Institute

(Video credit: Rafael Lemaitre and Ellen Muller/Creative Commons)

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