Rare St Piran's crab discovered for the first time in county by Devon Wildlife Trust volunteer at Wembury

By Aaron Kendall   |   Assistant Editor   |
Tuesday 23rd August 2016 8:13 am
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A VOLUNTEER helping out with a ’rockpool safari’ at a popular South Hams beach has found a species of crab not seen in Devon for more than 30 years.

St Piran’s crab, Clibanarius erythropus was found at Wembury beach by volunteer John Hepburn during one of the regular safaris run by Devon Wildlife Trust.

The last record of a St Piran’s crab in Devon was in 1985, although the 15 millimetre long beast was once common along the South West’s south coast. It is thought the crab fell victim to pollution resulting from environmental disasters including the wrecking of Torrey Canyon oil tanker in 1967, along with other factors like changing sea temperatures.

John has been volunteering at Wembury Marine Centre for 13 years, and helped with hundreds of safaris before making this ’pretty special’ find. St Piran’s is a type of hermit crab, using the empty shells of other molluscs to make a house, and the discovery happened when John spotted what he thought was a relatively common netted dog whelk shell.

He said: ’Picking up the shell I realised it was not empty. What I assumed was a hermit crab was more confident than usual and came out a long way to examine the end of my finger. 

’Being colour-blind I asked the family I was showing around the rockpools if the crab was red, and having been told it was reddish, I thought it worthwhile trying to get a picture in case it was a St Piran’s crab.’

Once home John compared his photo with online videos of St Piran’s crabs, and to his delight, his find matched. Experts at the Marine Biological Association of the UK in Plymouth later confirmed the species.

The discovery of a St Piran’s crab in Devon follows its rediscovery in March in Cornwall, close to Falmouth. The Cornish find was the first in the UK since the 1980s, and viewers of the BBC’s Springwatch programme were asked to give the crustacean a common, rather than Latin name. St Piran, the patron Saint of Cornwall, was the popular response.

John added: ’This is a pretty special find. There were lots of other people hoping to be the one to discover the first St Piran’s crab outside Cornwall. That it’s now making a comeback after being absent from our shores for so long shows that it is always worth making the effort to save our seas.’

Devon Wildlife Trust marine education officer Coral Smith said: ’John’s discovery came during one of our regular rockpool safaris.

’It just goes to show that our local marine wildlife still has the capacity to surprise, and how important places like Wembury are. It’s why it holds one of the highest forms of statutory protection as a Special Area of Conservation.

’We’re honoured that Devon’s first St Piran’s crabs have been found here - they are certainly very welcome back.’

It is not known how the tiny crabs might have reestablished themselves in the South West after an absence of decades, although some scientists think they may have been carried across the seas as plankton from existing populations on the west coast of France.

For more information on Wembury Marine Centre’s rockpool safaris visit www.wemburymarinecentre.org.

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