Hold onto your hats because a groundbreaking discovery has been made! For the first time, a true crab from the age of dinosaurs has been unearthed, perfectly preserved in amber. The 100 million-year-old crustacean, named Cretapsara athanata, is in such an incredible state that even its gills remain intact. This astounding find has the potential to provide valuable insights into the evolution of land crabs from their marine ancestors. So get ready to update your knowledge on prehistoric crabs, thanks to this exciting discovery!

Crabs are known for having delicate gills that are not typically preserved over millions of years. However, the recently discovered Cretapsara athanata had impressively intact gills, indicating that it lived a lifestyle somewhere between amphibious and freshwater. This makes it a departure from its marine ancestors and suggests that true crabs existed in freshwater habitats much earlier than previously thought, closing a 50 million-year gap in the fossil record. The species is believed to be the oldest non-marine crab on record, indicating that true crabs have independently conquered non-marine habitats numerous times since the mid-Cretaceous period. The researchers named the creature “the immortal Cretaceous spirit of clouds and waters,” emphasizing the significance of its discovery.

The crab was scooped up in rough, raw amber but wasn’t discovered until someone polished the fossil. Image credit: Lida Xing

This fabulous crab has quite the backstory. Discovered among a batch of raw amber pieces sold by Burmese miners, it was later polished and found to be priceless. Now residing in the Longyin Amber Museum in China, this crab lived near a coastal estuary in brackish or freshwater around 100 million years ago. Its unique placement and condition provide valuable insights into the evolution of land crabs from their marine ancestors. The fact that this non-marine crab was found in amber provides a rare and exciting opportunity to bridge a significant gap in the fossil record. This fabulous crustacean is a fascinating addition to the museum’s scientific collections, a true jewel in the crown.


Artistic reconstruction of the epically named Cretapsara athanata, the “immortal Cretaceous spirit of the clouds and waters.” Image credit: Artwork by Franz Anthony, courtesy of Javier Luque (Harvard University).

Luque and his team are not content with discovering the world’s oldest freshwater crab; they also want to study why so many creatures have evolved to become crabs. This unusual evolutionary phenomenon, known as “carcinization,” has intrigued scientists for years, and the researchers hope to uncover more information about the transition of these crustaceans from sea to land and freshwater. To achieve this goal, they are building a comprehensive family tree of crabs with the help of colleagues from Florida International University and Harvard University, thanks to funding from the National Science Foundation. By studying the evolution and diversification of crabs over time, they hope to understand better the modern forms of crabs we see today.

The discovery of the ancient crab preserved in amber has brought more attention to the region of Myanmar where it was originally found. The Longyin Amber Museum in China obtained the fossilized crab from Myanmar miners before the ongoing conflict in the Kachin State. The researchers had focused their studies only on the materials collected before the conflict began in 2017. This is a reminder of the human cost of the ongoing conflict and the need for increased awareness. Acknowledging this situation, the researchers hope to bring attention to the conflict and promote further understanding of its impact.

For the love of crabs

Dr. Javier Luque, a researcher studying crab evolution for over a decade, is thrilled to bring attention to these fascinating creatures. Crabs are found worldwide, make great pets, are a delicious culinary delicacy, and are celebrated in festivals and parades. From their varied forms, such as the small pea-shaped crabs to the enormous coconut crabs, the diversity of crabs has captured the imaginations of both scientific and non-scientific communities alike. This discovery of the ancient crab in amber is a significant moment for studying crabs, and Luque hopes it will lead to even more exciting discoveries about these unique creatures.

Luque has studied crab evolution for over a decade and is excited to turn the world’s attention to them. As he said about crabs:

They are all over the world, make good aquarium pets, are delicious for those of us who eat them, are celebrated in parades and festivals, and even have their own constellation. Crabs are fascinating, and some are so bizarre-looking — from tiny pea-shaped crabs to humongous coconut crabs. The diversity of form among crabs is captivating the imagination of the scientific and nonscientific public alike. Right now, people are excited to learn more about a fascinating group that is not dinosaurs. This is a big moment for crabs.

Javier Luque (left) excavates fossils in the tropics. Image via Harvard University/ Felipe Villegas/ Humboldt Institute.


Source: Crab in amber reveals early colonization of nonmarine environments during the Cretaceous Via Harvard University



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