During the Cretaceous period about 100 million years ago, a small crustacean crawled out from its marine home and scaled a tree. The crab — only about half the size of a thumbnail — unwittingly becomes buried in tree sap. For millions of years, it lay untouched, until it was found by miners in the Southeast Asian jungle in 2015.
In a new study, published in the journal Science Advances on Oct. 20, researchers detail the contents of the palm-sized chunk of amber and the clawed critter within. The ancient crustacean, named Cretapsara anthanata, is believed to be the earliest “modern-looking” crab ever found and the most complete fossil yet discovered.
“It includes delicate tissues like antennae, mouthparts lined with fine hairs, large compound eyes, and even the gills,” Javier Luque, a Harvard paleontologist and co-lead author of the study, said in a press release.
It’s not uncommon to find. Ancient flies, mosquitoes, and have been found within the sap. But a crab? A mostly aquatic creature? While it’s common to see crabs climbing trees today, the fossil record showed their ancestors started to crawl out of the water about 75 to 50 million years ago.
DNA analysis proposed that, perhaps, land-based crabs may have changed from their ancestors some 125 million years ago. That makes Cretapsara an extraordinary find, potentially bridging the evolutionary gap within marine and non-marine crabs. Because the crab has gills and not lungs, it likely didn’t dwell on land but may have spent brief periods out of the water.
That doesn’t explain how the crab came to be buried, but the team has crafted a pair of hypotheses. The diminutive size of the crustacean suggests it may be a juvenile from an amphibious species. There’s also possible it was migrating onto land, from water,. However it got there, paleontologists are now receiving the rewards, pulling back the curtain on crab evolution.
“The diversity of form among crabs is captivating the imagination of the scientific and non-scientific public alike, and right now people are excited to learn more about such a fascinating group that is not dinosaurs,” Luque said.
“This is a big moment for crabs.”
The fossil, having been obtained in Myanmar and sold at a market in China in 2015, also raises ethical questions. Following a military coup by the Tatmadaw in Myanmar in early 2021, the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology composed an open letter calling for a moratorium on studies of Myanmar amber specimens taken after January 2021 but note the Tatmadaw had taken control of the mines back in 2017.