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Scientists Say These Creepy Crawleys Are the Key to Restoring Florida’s Coral Reefs

Creatures that can grow up to 24 pounds with a leg span of five feet are part of a plan to restore Florida’s iconic coral reefs in a more holistic way.

FLORIDA — On Tuesday Morning, thousands of Caribbean king crabs were born less than a week after their mother arrived at the Mote Aquaculture Research Park in Sarasota.

The mother crab originated in Summerland Key and was moved from a coral reef research and restoration facility to Sarasota as part of a $100 million effort to restore Florida’s coral reef tract. After giving birth to thousands of tiny babies, researchers moved the mother crab back to her tank with other adults.


King crabs can grow up to 24 pounds with a leg span of five feet. Males grow faster and larger than females. Female crabs reproduce only once yearly and release between 50,000 and 500,000 eggs. The Larvae that hatch from eggs resemble tiny shrimp.

The newborn crab siblings are test pilots for the Mission Iconic Reefs regional grazer hatchery initiative. The hatchery is still under development and aims to produce more than 250,000 Caribbean king crabs annually.

Researchers hope that when they place the crabs back onto the reef, they will eat enough algae to allow the genetically resilient coral to begin to thrive again.


“They’re definitely a big part of the restoration strategy for Florida’s coral reef,” Mote Coral Reef Restoration Research Program Manager Jason Spadaro said. “The crabs and Diadema – the long-spined sea urchin – together, are complementary grazers that actually facilitate the success of more direct restoration initiatives, like planting corals on the reef.”

Mission: Iconic Reefs, announced in December 2019, is an initiative of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Researchers hope to restore 3 million square feet of coral on seven crucial reefs in Southeast Florida.

The ambitious project aims to plant 242,000 coral fragments on ten reef sites, plus add 34,000 Caribbean king crabs. Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium received a $7 million grant in April to begin phase two – introducing the crabs to the reef to speed up restoration.