In the depths of the western North Atlantic, you may be surprised to find thriving deep-sea coral communities. Deep-sea corals provide habitat for a variety of organisms including Eumunida picta, a charming and intrepid species of squat lobster that calls these communities home.
Dr. Martha Nizinski, a Research Zoologist with the National Systematics Laboratory, has spent much of her career studying deep-sea communities, with a special focus on crustaceans like E. picta. Recently, she led a study published in Deep-Sea Research that delves into the ecology, behavior, and habitat use of this species. This is now the most comprehensive dataset available to us on these aspects of E. picta. Detailed information for this species, particularly observations in its natural habitat, was previously limited.
Despite sharing a name, squat lobsters are actually more closely related to hermit crabs than the American lobster. E. picta is a medium- to large-sized species of squat lobster that lives at depths of 200 to 600 meters among deep-sea corals. The research suggests that Lophelia pertusa, also known as deep-water white coral, is the preferred habitat of E. picta. Populations of this squat lobster are influenced by the abundance and distributions of L. pertusa. Eumunida picta has a complex and intimate relationship with this species of coral.
By studying video footage captured using submersibles, Nizinski and her team were able to observe squat lobster behavior on, within, and around these corals. Historically, most squat lobsters were considered to be scavengers. However, the research team documented numerous instances of E. picta capturing prey in the water column, suggesting that this squat lobster is an active predator. The researchers frequently observed a “claws-extended” behavior displayed by these squat lobsters perched on the upper portions of L. pertusa colonies. This behavior, in combination with position on the coral colony, may aid in the success of these predation attempts.
These findings shift our understanding of the feeding ecology of this species. By utilizing a variety of feeding modes, including scavenging and active predation, E. picta is an important link in the transfer of energy between the water column and the seafloor.