Do you make decisions based on temperature? This crab does!

Have you ever spent a winter vacation on the warm, sunny beach and came back to the cold weather and thought, “I am definitely meant to be where it’s warm!” I think this feeling is common among us Northeasterners (especially after this winter’s polar vortex), but it’s certainly not universal across the animal kingdom.

The Jonah Crab – look familiar?

My recent article, published in the Journal of Experimental Biology and Ecology, addresses this question of temperature preference in the Jonah crab, Cancer borealis. This crab might sound or look familiar—we eat it, it’s a model organism for us neuroscientists, and you can probably find it on any rocky shore in New England. I became interested in how this animal responds to temperature after learning the activity of its nervous system can maintain precise rhythmic coordination over a large range of temperatures… and that acclimation to warmer temperatures increases the threshold temperature at which the nervous system “crashes” (more info here). I thought, “Ok, so it can withstand a lot of temperature stress, but at what temperature does it optimally function?”

Temperature preference in Cancer borealis
Results indicated that the temperature where the animal had been living (its acclimation temperature) significantly affected its preferred temperature. Warm acclimated crabs preferred warmer temperatures than cold acclimated crabs.


You can read more about my methods and results here, but in synopsis we learned this crab is thermotactic. It navigates away from extreme temperatures and towards a preferred temperature. We also learned that the ‘preferred temperature’, where its physiological function is presumably at its optimum, is around 16˚C. Finally, we discovered the preferred temperature is significantly affected by the temperature it had previously been living (i.e. cold acclimated crabs prefer warm waters, and warm acclimated crabs prefer even warmer waters).

We hope this research helps inform future research on the nervous system function of this model organism, and also provide some background information on the seasonal migration and catchability of this species as an emerging fishery in New England and Canada.

PS- If you were an early converter to this blog, this post IS a follow up to my posts on cool examples of thermotaxis and my sneak peek on the temperature gradient design used in this experiment! The experiment is DONE and the results are OUT! 🙂 You can read more about my research here.


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