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Aug 12, 2019 10:50 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Invasion Of The Skeleton Shrimp

Two of the dozens of half-inch-long skeleton shrimp found clinging to bathing suits of bay swimmers last week. The specimen at top is a female with a round brood plate containing her eggs.  MIKE BOTTINI MIKE BOTTINI
Aug 12, 2019 11:42 AM

Over the course of several days in late July and early August, many swimmers in Gardiners Bay off Alberts Landing Beach emerged from their long swims with their bathing suits covered by dozens (in the case of the males) and hundreds (inside and on suits the case of the females) of tiny, half-inch-long filaments that at first appeared to be clumps of brown algae.As I began pulling the clumps off my suit I realized they were some type of marine creature. Teasing a single specimen out of the mass for a close look, it resembled a miniature praying mantis, and in fact it is nicknamed “the Praying Mantis of the Sea” for that resemblance. This is one of many species of skeleton shrimp (Caprella spp.) found in our marine environment.

Three pairs of hook-tipped appendages at the rear end of these creatures enable them to cling securely to seaweeds, eelgrass, hydroids, spider crab shells, dock lines, moorings, buoys, and our swim suit fabric. Those opting for the latter substrate had their short, one-year-long lifespans cut even shorter as we exited the water and brushed them off in the parking lot.

At the other end of its very slender body are two pairs of antennae, one pair slightly longer than the other, that are used to sweep food particles suspended in the water toward the mouth. An omnivore, its diet includes copepods, algae, detritus, and the vast pool of larvae of other marine organisms found in our bays during the summer months. Two pairs of clawed appendages near the head are used to capture food, and these may have inflicted the “bites” that some of the women reported getting from skeleton shrimp trapped inside their one-piece swimsuits.

Skeleton shrimp are capable of changing their color to match that of the particular substrate chosen to hook onto, although this takes some time, and combined with their very slender shape their ability to camouflage with their surroundings makes them quite difficult to detect at first glance.

Amidships, between the rear hook-tipped legs and the clawed legs up forward, are two pairs of paddle-like appendages: the gills. These are clearly evident on the lower specimen in the attached photo. The upper specimen is a female; her gills are obscured by brood pouches containing eggs. The eggs are held until they hatch into juvenile adults. After hatching, the young attach themselves to the mother with their rear legs for protection until they are old enough to fend for themselves.

Mating can only occur after the female has molted and shed her exoskeleton, and before her new exoskeleton hardens. The male’s antennae serve another purpose other than feeding: they are used to detect female pheromones not unlike the feathery antennae of moths. After locating a receptive female, the male will carry her until she molts and deposits sperm into the brood pouch. Some hours later, the female releases her eggs into the pouch for fertilization.

Despite many swimming sessions in Gardiners Bay over the past 25 years, I’ve never noticed this interesting creature. One possibility is that my swimming has gotten so slow, the extremely slow moving skeleton shrimp is able to latch onto me as I drift by.

For a short video of skeleton shrimp, visit: youtube.com/watch?v=Qjo20lZLAlM.

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