When I was but an ickle lad, and my family would camp over Christmas at the beach by the estuary beneath the house of my great-grandparents, I would spend many hours turning over rocks and catching the crabs that I found underneath them. The most common variety I would find was the tiny grey-brown mud crab (Helice crassa), which could be handled easily, but if I managed to turn over one of the really big rocks then I would be able to find the larger purple shore crabs (Leptograpsus variegatus), which required a more careful approach lest they inflict great pain. One thing I didn't know at the time about either animal, however, was that they were both members of the superfamily Grapsoidea.
Grapsoidea is a grouping of crabs including at least seven families. The classification of Grapsoidea is currently undergoing something of a revision, and has shifted about a little in recent years. While most grapsoids were once included in the single family Grapsidae, the recognition of the latter as paraphyletic to the Gecarcinidae has lead to the elevation of the various prior subfamilies of Grapsidae to separate families. The family Glyptograpsidae was only established in 2002 (Schubart et al., 2002), while the genus Xenograpsus was moved into its own family within the past year (Ng et al., 2007). Other families in the group are Sesarmidae, Varunidae and Plagusiidae. The majority of grapsoids are found on the shoreline, but some (such as the Chinese mitten crab Eriocheir sinensis) move into fresh water. At least one genus, Planes (Grapsidae), is pelagic, while Xenograpsus has been found to depths of 270 m (McLay, 2007). Xenograpsus is found in association with hydrothermal vents, and populations of X. testudinatus living on sulphur vents near Taiwan make their living by feeding on the rain of dead zooplankton killed by toxic discharges from the vents (Ng et al., 2007).
Some members of the Gecarcinidae live their adult lives terrestrially as adults on tropical islands. Nevertheless, all grapsoids (as far as I can tell) retain the ancestral state of marine planktonic larvae, so all terrestrial gecarcinids must return to the coast to spawn. The Christmas Island red crab, Gecarcoidea natalis has become renowned for the vast numbers that can be seen in its mass migrations, as the entire island's population of crabs (more than 40 million when estimated in 1995 - Adamczewska & Morris, 2001) moves down to the coast over the course of a week or so. Tragically, recent years have seen a population explosion on Christmas Island of the introduced yellow crazy ant* (Anoplolepis gracilipes), which was estimated to have killed off some 15 million-plus crabs by 2003 (O'Dowd et al., 2003), and has essentially eliminated crab populations wherever it has established colonies. Foraging crabs are attacked in large numbers by crazy ants defending their nests, and poisoned with large amounts of formic acid. Crazy ants will also occupy crab burrows, removing their former inhabitants with extreme prejudice. Not only are resident crabs killed, but crabs migrating from elsewhere have been destroyed as they crossed crazy ant-infested locations on their way to the coast. Where red crabs have been eliminated, the forest vegetation structure has begun to change significantly, as seedlings that would have once been grazed by crabs are able to establish a dense undergrowth.
*So called because of the seemingly random way in which they wander about when foraging.
The Grapsoidea are closely related to another shore-crab family, the Ocypodoidea, and apparently species included in these two superfamilies were once united (back in the 1800s) under the taxon name Catometopa (Schubart et al., 2006), a name that I think deserves resurrection (just try saying it a couple of times - "Catometopa!"). While it seems to be universally accepted that these two superfamilies form a clade, the molecular phylogenetic analysis of Schubart et al. (2006) indicated that each of the "superfamilies" was polyphyletic within this clade, and recommended that they not be recognised as distinct. So far, I haven't been able to find what are the characters that are supposed to separate the two groups. Davie & Ng (2007) stated that morphological data maintained the monophyly of Grapsoidea, but omitted to cite any details in support of this statement.
Adamczewska, A. M., & S. Morris. 2001. Ecology and behavior of Gecarcoidea natalis, the Christmas Island red crab, during the annual breeding migration. Biological Bulletin 200: 305-320.
Davie, P. J. F., & N. K. Ng. 2007. Two new subfamilies of Varunidae (Crustacea: Brachyura), with description of two new genera. Raffles Bulletin of Zoology Supplement 16: 257-272.
McLay, C. 2007. New crabs from hydrothermal vents of the Kermadec Ridge submarine volcanoes, New Zealand: Gandalfus gen. nov. (Bythograeidae) and Xenograpsus (Varunidae) (Decapoda: Brachyura). Zootaxa 1524: 1-22.
Ng, N. K., P. J. F. Davie, C. D. Schubart & P. K. L. Ng. 2007. Xenograpsidae, a new family of grapsoid crabs (Crustacea: Brachyura) associated with shallow water hydrothermal vents. Raffles Bulletin of Zoology Supplement 16: 233-256.
O'Dowd, D. J., P. T. Green & P. S. Lake. 2003. Invasional 'meltdown' on an oceanic island. Ecology Letters 6 (9): 812-817.
Schubart, C. D., S. Cannicci, M. Vannini & S. Fratini. 2006. Molecular phylogeny of grapsoid crabs (Decapoda, Brachyura) and allies based on two mitochondrial genes and a proposal for refraining from current superfamily classification. Journal of Zoological Systematics and Evolutionary Research 44 (3): 193-199.
Schubart, C. D., J. A. Cuesta & D. L. Felder. 2002. Glyptograpsidae, a new brachyuran family from Central America: larval and adult morphology, and a molecular phylogeny of the Grapsoidea. Journal of Crustacean Biology 22(1): 28-44.