Colour polymorphism in the coconut crab (Birgus latro)

Abstract

Coconut crabs (Birgus latro) are strikingly variable in coloration, but the significance of this colour diversity has never been investigated. We studied coloration, morphology, behaviour and background matching of adult coconut crabs, the world’s largest terrestrial invertebrate, at the western edge of its distribution on Pemba Island, Tanzania. Adults are evidently polymorphic; they come in red and blue types (3:1 ratio on Pemba). The best predictor of colour morph was ventral hue, which, using a discriminant function analysis, correctly classified 96% of the crabs assigned into a predefined colour group. In contrast, principal component analyses suggested a degree of overlapping colour variation. We found no evidence that coloration was sex or size-linked. Males were larger than females and the Pemba adult population appeared male-biased (3:1). We also report that red adults may match the background better than do blue adults on land, whereas blue match better near shore than do red. We postulate that although colour diversity in coconut crabs may be genetically determined, potentially through a crustacyanin gene polymorphism influencing the stability of integument pigmentation, its maintenance may involve several ecological drivers.

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Acknowledgements

We thank the Revolutionary Government of Zanzibar for permission; the University of California, Davis for funding fieldwork; and two anonymous reviewers for comments.

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Correspondence to Ossi Nokelainen.

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Nokelainen, O., Stevens, M. & Caro, T. Colour polymorphism in the coconut crab (Birgus latro). Evol Ecol 32, 75–88 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10682-017-9924-1

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Keywords

  • Background matching
  • Colour variation
  • Crustaceans
  • Developmental plasticity
  • Pemba Island
  • Trade-off