The Remarkable Evolutionary Journey of Crabs: From Sea to Land and Back Again

A groundbreaking study reveals the complex history of crabs and offers insights into the evolution of terrestrial lifestyles in invertebrates.

Crabs, those fascinating creatures that scuttle along the ocean floor, have a remarkable evolutionary history. While most terrestrial plants and animals made the transition from the sea to land only once, crabs have done so multiple times, with some even reverting back to a marine lifestyle. A recent study published in Systematic Biology sheds new light on the evolutionary journey of crabs, offering a comprehensive understanding of their complex history and providing clues about how other early invertebrates may have adapted to life on land.

The Absence of a Unified Crab Tree of Life:

Unlike well-studied animals such as birds and mammals, the crab family, known as Brachyura, has lacked a unified evolutionary tree. This has made it challenging to study the timing and process of the transition from marine to terrestrial habitats. However, this new study has filled this gap, creating the most comprehensive evolutionary tree to date for true crabs, which comprise approximately 7,600 species.

Crabs: Masters of Adaptation:

Crabs are an incredibly diverse group, having colonized almost every type of habitat on Earth. However, studying their evolutionary journey has been difficult due to the lack of an extensive fossil record. In addition, past research often treated marine, freshwater, and land crabs as separate groups, when in fact they form a continuum. By considering them together, researchers gain valuable insights into their evolution.

Unraveling the Crab Tree of Life:

To create the evolutionary tree, researchers collected genetic data from 333 species of crabs in the Brachyura group. This data, combined with fossil evidence, allowed them to reconstruct a timeline of when crabs transitioned to terrestrial habitats. The team discovered that true crabs diverged from other crustacean lineages approximately 230 million years ago, during the Triassic Period, refining previous estimates. Over the following millions of years, crabs diversified extensively, a period referred to as the “Cretaceous crab revolution.”

Crabs: Masters of Terrestrial Adaptation:

The study also revealed that crabs adapted to a more terrestrial lifestyle as many as 17 times during their evolution. This involved either shifting from the ocean to the intertidal zone or colonizing similarly salty environments like mangroves. Some crabs even made their way to freshwater estuaries and rivers before venturing onto land. Interestingly, in at least two cases, crabs reverted back to a marine lifestyle long after they had left.

The Astonishing Evolutionary Journey:

The sheer number of times crabs independently left the ocean is astonishing. This groundbreaking study demonstrates how the combination of molecular biology, fossils, and modern numerical techniques can provide insights into previously unanswerable questions. Katie Davis, an evolutionary paleobiologist at the University of York, describes the study as fantastic, highlighting the importance of such multidisciplinary approaches in understanding complex evolutionary processes.

Implications for Early Arthropods:

The study not only sheds light on the evolutionary history of crabs but also offers insights into the adaptations early arthropods, such as insects, may have needed to transition from water to land. By examining the successful crabs that left the ocean, researchers can make educated guesses about the adaptations early insects may have required. For example, modern crabs that live out of the water excel at preventing dehydration and have reduced their dependence on water for reproduction. These adaptations may have been crucial for the first proto-insects to venture onto land.


The evolutionary journey of crabs is a testament to their remarkable adaptability. The study’s findings provide a comprehensive understanding of the complex history of crabs and offer insights into the evolution of terrestrial lifestyles in invertebrates. By examining the diverse adaptations of crabs that successfully made the transition from sea to land, researchers gain valuable clues about the challenges and strategies early arthropods may have faced. This study exemplifies the power of combining different scientific disciplines to unravel the mysteries of our planet’s rich evolutionary tapestry.






Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *