Chionoecetes opilio

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Chionoecetes opilio
Blue Chionoecetes opilio.JPG
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Arthropoda
Subphylum: Crustacea
Class: Malacostraca
Order: Decapoda
Infraorder: Brachyura
Family: Oregoniidae
Genus: Chionoecetes
Species: C. opilio
Binomial name
Chionoecetes opilio
(O. Fabricius, 1788)
Synonyms [1]
  • Cancer phalangium O. Fabricius, 1780 non J. C. Fabricius, 1775: preoccupied
  • Cancer opilio O. Fabricius, 1788
  • Chionoecetes behringianus Stimpson, 1857
  • Chionoecetes chilensis Streets, 1870
  • Peloplastus pallasi Gerstaecker, 1856

Chionoecetes opilio, also known as snow crab, is a predominantly epifaunal crustacean native to shelf depths in the northwest Atlantic Ocean and north Pacific Ocean. It is a well-known commercial species of Chionoecetes, often caught with traps or by trawling. Male C. opilio crabs with a total length above 91 mm (3.6 in) long are the most commonly trapped, especially around Newfoundland. Seven species are in the genus Chionoecetes, all of which bear the name "snow crab". C. opilio is also related to Chionoecetes tanneri, commonly known as the tanner crab, and other crab species found in the cold, northern oceans.


Snow crabs have equally long and wide carapaces, or protective shell-coverings, over their bodies. Their tubercles, or the bodily projections on their shell, are moderately enclosed in calcium deposits, and they boast hooked setae, which are rigid, yet springy, hair-like organs on their claws. Snow crabs have a horizontal rostrum at the front of the carapace; the rostrum is basically just an extension of the hard, shell covering of the carapace and it boasts two flat horns separated by a gap. They have triangular spines and well-defined gastric and branchial regions internally.[2] Snow crabs also have little granules along the border of their bodies, except their intestinal region. Concerning their walking legs, their first three are compressed; their chelipeds, or pincers, are usually smaller, shorter, or equal to their walking legs.[3] Snow crab are iridescent and range in color from brown to light red on top and from yellow to white on the bottom,[1] and are bright white on the sides of their feet.[4]

Distribution and habitat[edit]

Snow crabs are very abundant in the Atlantic Ocean region. More specifically, they are found in the Western Atlantic area near Greenland, Newfoundland, in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and on the Scotian Shelf.[2] This crab species is also found across the North Pacific area, in areas ranging from Alaska to northern Siberia, and through the Bering Strait to the Aleutian Islands, Japan, and Korea.[5]

In 1996, they were first recorded in the Barents Sea, where considered invasive, but how they arrived there is unclear.[6] Another commercially important species, the red king crab, was deliberately introduced to the same region. Like that species, snow crabs likely will have an adverse effect on the native species of the Barents Sea.[6]

Snow crabs are often found in the ocean's benthic shelf and upper slope, in the sandy and muddy bottoms, and in depths as shallow as 20 m (66 ft) and as deep as 1,200 m (3,900 ft). The most snow crab can be found at 70–280 m (230–920 ft) in the Atlantic waters.[3] Where male and female snow crab are found in the ocean depths can vary: Small adult and senescent adult males occur mainly at intermediate depths over much of the year, while large and hardy adult males are found mostly at depths greater than 80 m (260 ft). Adult females are gregarious and congregate at depths of 60–120 m (200–390 ft).


C. opilio crabs eat other invertebrates that reside in the benthic shelf, such as crustaceans, bivalves, brittle stars, polychaetes, and even phytobenthos and foraminiferans. Snow crabs are also scavengers, and aside from preying on other benthic shelf invertebrates, they also prey on annelid worms and mollusks. Males typically prove to be better predators than mature females, and prey type depends upon predator size, with the smallest crabs feeding mainly on amphipods and ophiuroids, while the largest crabs feed mainly on annelids, crustacean decapods, and fish.[7] Cannibalism is also practised at times among snow crabs, most frequently by intermediate-sized females.

Size and population structure[edit]

The snow crab grows slowly and is structured according to its size, with at least 11 recognised stages of growth for male crabs. The male crabs are usually twice the size of the female crabs. Male snow crabs can grow to 150 mm (5.9 in), while females can grow to 90 mm (3.5 in). Male carapaces are usually around 70 mm (2.8 in) in width and length, with the female carapace usually at about 55 mm (2.2 in) in width and length.[4]

Off the coast of Newfoundland, two amphipod species – Ischyrocerus commensalis and Gammaropsis inaequistylis – have been found to live on the carapace of the snow crab.[8]

Breeding patterns[edit]

Snow crabs have a very high reproductive potential: each year, every single female carries eggs. Females are fertilised internally and can carry up to 150,000 eggs under their abdomens after mating. Females usually lay their eggs in very deep areas of the ocean, such as in deposits of phytodetritus. Males are also capable of mating at both immature and mature stages of their lives.[9]

Adult snow crabs usually live between five and six years; before their deaths, they usually moult, mate a final time, and then die. New snow crab offspring hatch along with the late spring phytoplankton boom, so they have an ample food source to take advantage of upon hatching. When they hatch, the snow crabs are in the zoeal stage, meaning that they are developing larva that can swim on their own. Then, they morph into the megalopa stage and settle to the ocean floor among the phytodetritus; the megalopa stage is the advanced larval stage into which the crab develops before becoming a true adult.

Commercial importance[edit]

This species of crab was commonly caught by trappers in the 1980s, but trapping has decreased since then. Much of the trapping has been in Canada for commercial use.[10] The first commercial fishing for the species in the Barents Sea (where not native) began in 2013, the stock of this region likely will eventually reach levels similar to eastern Canada.[6]


The species was first described by Otto Fabricius in 1780, under the name Cancer phalangium,[11] a name which was invalid due to Johan Christian Fabricius having used it previously for the species now known as Inachus phalangium.[12] The first valid scientific name was provided by Otto Fabricius in 1788, when he redescribed the species as Cancer opilio. The type locality is Greenland.[12]

As the genus Cancer was divided up, the species C. opilio was transferred to a new genus, Chionoecetes by Henrik Nikolai Krøyer in 1838. Chionoecetes opilio was the only species in the genus at first, so is the type species.

Mary J. Rathbun described a subspecies, C. opilio elongatus, in 1924. This is now generally recognised as a full species, Chionoecetes elongatus.[13]


  1. ^ a b Peter Davie & Michael Türkay (2010). "Chionoecetes opilio (O. Fabricius, 1788)". World Register of Marine Species. Retrieved January 19, 2011. 
  2. ^ a b Michel Comeau; Gérard Y Conan; Francesc Maynou; Guy Robichaud; Jean-Claude Therriault & Michel Starr (1998). "Growth, spatial distribution, and abundance of benthic stages of the snow crab (Chionoecetes opilio) in Bonne Bay, Newfoundland, Canada". Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences. 55 (1): 262–279. doi:10.1139/f97-255. 
  3. ^ a b R. W. Elner (1985). Crabs of the Atlantic Coast of Canada. DFO Underwater World Factsheet UW/43. Department of Fisheries and Oceans. 
  4. ^ a b T. Sakai (1938). "Snow crab (Chionoecetes opilio)". Crabs of Japan. 3. p. 275. 
  5. ^ M. J. Tremblay (1997). "Snow Crab (Chionoecetes opilio) distribution limits and abundance trends on the Scotian Shelf" (PDF). Journal of Northwest Atlantic Fishery Science. 21: 7–22. doi:10.2960/J.v21.a1. 
  6. ^ a b c J. H. Sundet; S. Bakanev (2014). "Snow crab (Chionoecetes opilio) – a new invasive crab species becoming an important player in the Barents Sea ecosystem" (PDF). ICES 2014 Annual Science Conference. 
  7. ^ Hubert J. Squires & Earl G. Dawe (2003). "Stomach contents of snow crab (Chionoecetes opilio, Decapoda, Brachyura) from the Northeast Newfoundland Shelf" (PDF). Journal of Northwest Atlantic Fishery Science. 32: 27–38. doi:10.2960/J.v32.a2. 
  8. ^ D. H. Steele; R. G. Hooper & D. Keats (1986). "Two corophioid amphipods commensal on spider crabs in Newfoundland". Journal of Crustacean Biology. 6 (1): 119–124. doi:10.1163/193724086x00776. JSTOR 1547935. 
  9. ^ Robert W. Elner & Peter G. Beninger (1995). "Multiple reproductive strategies in snow crab, Chionoecetes opilio". Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology. 193 (1–2, Behavioural Ecology of Decapod Crustaceans: An Experimental Approach): 93–112. doi:10.1016/0022-0981(95)00112-3. 
  10. ^ Gustavo A. Lovrich & Bernard Sainte-Marie (1997). "Cannibalism in the snow crab, Chionoecetes opilio (O. Fabricius) (Brachyura: Majidae), and its potential importance to recruitment". Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology. 211 (2): 225–245. doi:10.1016/S0022-0981(96)02715-3. 
  11. ^ Otto Fabricius (1780). "214. Cancer phalangium". Fauna Groenlandica (in Latin). pp. 234–235. 
  12. ^ a b "Snow crab (Chionoecetes opilio)". Crabs of Japan. Retrieved January 19, 2011. 
  13. ^ Peter K. L. Ng; Danièle Guinot & Peter J. F. Davie (2008). "Systema Brachyurorum: Part I. An annotated checklist of extant Brachyuran crabs of the world" (PDF). Raffles Bulletin of Zoology. 17: 1–286. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2011-06-06. 

Further reading[edit]