News for NMU Employees

Cumberlidge Part of Global Effort to Save Crab Species

Call them spineless, but never downplay their significance in terms of the planet’s biodiversity. Invertebrates—animals without a backbone—comprise 95 percent of all animal species and play a vital role in nearly every ecosystem. Despite their importance, invertebrates have been generally neglected in biodiversity conservation strategies, even though some populations have dwindled dramatically because of pollution or habitat destruction. This is now changing and invertebrates are increasingly being included in the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.

In 2009, Neil Cumberlidge (Biology) led an international team of specialists that identified all of the world’s threatened freshwater crab species. Now he is part of a groundbreaking effort to rescue from extinction a “critically endangered” species from Singapore.

“Of the 1,300 or so freshwater crab species worldwide, about one-sixth are threatened,” Cumberlidge said. “It’s more difficult to get the public’s attention with crabs than it is, say, pandas or snow leopards. Crabs maintain a lower profile as they quietly keep the planet’s aquatic ecosystems running and people don’t immediately recognize their value. But ecosystems can crash if freshwater crabs decline because other species depend on them for their own survival. Crabs are food for fish, frogs, lizards, birds and mammals, and are therefore integral parts of complex food webs in the tropics.

“Getting freshwater crabs officially categorized on the Red List carries extra weight because that’s the global gold standard for extinction threat. The next step is action in the field: using the Red List information to do something about threatened species. This initiative marks the first time IUCN protocols for saving a species are being applied to freshwater crabs. I’m honored to be a part of it.”

The Singapore freshwater crab, or Johora singaporensis, is the focus of the effort. This species promotes the proper functioning of hill streams by cycling nutrients. It also serves as a potential indicator of pollution and climate change. As chair of the IUCN’s Freshwater Crab and Crayfish Specialist Group, Cumberlidge was invited to an international roundtable in Singapore to address the dire status of this specimen.

Cumberlidge said it is helpful that Singapore is referenced in the species to not only reflect the fact it is exclusively found there, but also to gain the country’s support for efforts to restore its numbers. Four organizations are involved in this initiative: Wildlife Reserves of Singapore, the National University of Singapore, the Singapore National Parks Service and the IUCN.

“We drafted a conservation plan at the three-day roundtable,” he added. “Once that is finalized, we will seek funding for the next stage, Right now the crabs are holding on rather precariously in the last section of rainforest at the top of a central mountain on the island. The plan is to secure tanks for captive species breeding at the zoo using specimens held at the university. The plan also involves ensuring that sufficient protected viable habitat is available in the National Park. Crabs can then be released into that habitat. It will take a decade or two before this species is no longer critically endangered, but that’s the journey we’re on.”

Cumberlidge will complete most of the remaining work on saving this Singapore species from extinction via email. His summer also includes giving a keynote address on freshwater decapod conservation at the International Crustacean World Congress this August in Frankfurt, Germany, followed by a keynote address at the Japanese Carcinological Society in Sapporo in September.