New Hairy-Chested 'Yeti' Crab Identified in Antarctic Hydrothermal Vents

Behold, Kiwa tyleria, the newly described yeti crab originally named the "Hoff" crab after David Hasselhoff, who also has a hairy chest. National Environment Research Council

Imagine only being able to live in a narrow band of very hot water surrounding hydrothermal vents in the Southern Ocean—and surviving on bacteria that grow on your hairy chest.

Such is the life of a newfound species of crab, known as Kiwa tyleri. Back in 2010 scientists found this small creature clinging to the sides of vents, in a frigid region of ocean northeast of the Antarctic Peninsula, but have now officially named and described it in a study published Wednesday in PLOS ONE.

Previously the scientists affectionately referred to it as the "Hoff" crab, after the hirsute actor David Hasselhoff. But the scientific name of these small crabs, whose shells can grow up to 2 inches in length, honors deep-sea biologist Paul Tyler, says his colleague and study lead author Sven Thatje, of the University of Southampton.

More than 700 crabs can be regularly found in a single square meter (about one-third the area of a queen-size mattress). National Environment Research Council

This crab prefers temperatures between 95 and 104 degrees Fahrenheit, but finding water that meets these conditions isn't easy. To do so, the animal must hunker down very close to the mouths of hydrothermal vents, which spew out water as hot as 715 degrees. Due to the high pressure and frigidity of the surrounding water, though, the temperature quickly drops off, Thatje says. So they must spend their lives in a delicate balancing act, for if they get too close to the vent they will be scalded, but if they stray too far they will freeze.

This forces them to live in superclose quarters: More than 700 can be regularly found in a single square meter (about one-third the area of a queen-size mattress). In one instance, more than 4,000 individuals were found in a single square meter.

An up-close look at the hair on the "chests" of Kiwa tyleri Sven Thatje et al / PLOS ONE

K. tyleri feeds upon mats of chemosynthetic bacteria, found around the vents, which get their energy by oxidizing compounds spewed out of the sea floor. The crabs also eat the microbes that live on the generous coat of hair that covers their chests. They don't just comb their hair to look good—but to get a meal. These animals, along with several related species, are known for their hairy appearance; that's why they're colloquially referred to as "yeti crabs."

Samples of the animal were first collected by a remotely operated vehicle deployed by a British research vessel known as the RRS James Cook. Subsequent analysis shows that it differs from other yeti crabs in several ways: it had shorter, stouter legs, a hairy chest, and elongated "spines on its front legs that allow it to climb the vent chimneys," Thatje notes.

The crabs cluster close to hydrothermal vents. National Environment Research Council