Field of Science

A Crab Out of Water

Crabs are, of course, one of the most instantly recognisable groups of crustaceans. We all know what they look like, and we all know where can find them: under rocks at the beach, among seaweed,... climbing trees?

The Sri Lankan climbing crab Ceylonthelphusa scansor, copyright Harsha Meemaduma.

Though most of us probably think of crabs as animals of the seaside, there are several crab lineages that are found further inland, either in bodies of fresh water or among damp forests. One such group is the Parathelphusinae, an assemblage of freshwater crabs found in south-east Asia and the Indian subcontinent. A single genus, Somanniathelphusa, is found in southern China as far north as Taiwan and the adjacent mainland. Another, Austrothelphusa, is found in Australia. The group is diverse and new species continue to be described at a fair rate of knots. Most are found in swamps or on the banks of water bodies, in which they dig burrows up to a metre in depth (Davie 2002). They often emerge from the water to forage terrestrially, and at least one species, the Sri Lankan Ceylonthelphusa scansor, has been found in association with phytotelmata (water-filled hollows) in trees (Ng 2005). Parathelphusines are distinguished from the other subfamily of the Asian freshwater crab family Gecarcinucidae, the Gecarcinucinae, by the presence of a strong lateral groove on the male's second gonopods (Klaus et al. 2006). Until recently, most sources have treated these two groups as distinct families, but phylogenetic studies have suggested the Gecarcinucidae in the restricted sense to be non-monophyletic. The situation is further complicated by the diagnostic gonopod groove becoming reduced in some genera, so their gonopods look superficially more like gecarcinucines'.

Paddyfield crab Parathelphusa convexa in west Java, copyright Wibowo Djatmiko.

The Gecarcinucidae differ from the grapsoid terrestrial crabs referred to in earlier posts in that they do not need to return to the sea to release their eggs to hatch into larvae. Instead, gecarcinucids produce relatively large eggs that hatch directly into miniature crabs, that are brooded for a short period by the females before being released to face the world. Because of the lack of a planktonic stage, some parathelphusines have quite restricted ranges, and many are threatened by human developments.


Davie, P. J. F. 2002. Zoological Catalogue of Australia vol. 19.3B. Crustacea: Malacostraca: Eucarida (part 2): Decapoda—Anomura, Brachyura. CSIRO Publishing: Collingwood (Australia).

Klaus, S., C. D. Schubart & D. Brandis. 2006. Phylogeny, biogeography and a new taxonomy for the Gecarcinucoidea Rathbun, 1904 (Decapoda: Brachyura). Organisms, Diversity and Evolution 6: 199–217.

Ng, P. K. L. 1995. Ceylonthelphusa scansor, a new species of tree-climbing crab from Sinharaja Forest in Sri Lanka (Crustacea: Decapoda: Brachyura: Parathelphusidae). J. South Asian nat. Hist. 1 (2): 175–184.


  1. The freshwater crab Amarinus lacustris (Hymenosomatidae) is more common and widespread in Australasia than Austrothelphusa. I can remember my disbelief when picking one up in a swampy forest in Tasmania years ago, 25 km from the sea.

  2. Interestingly, Amarinus lacustris is another direct-developing crab with no planktonic larval stage, though other hymenosomatids (including other near-identical species of Amarinus!) have free-living larvae.

  3. Land crabs were once an important component of Hawaiian forests. Subfossils have been found at some elevation on Maui. Just goes to show how strange the land biota was when viewed from modern eyes.


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