A unique form of light reflector and the evolution of signalling in Ovalipes (Crustacea: Decapoda: Portunidae)

Andrew R. Parker, David R. Mckenzie, Shane T. Ahyong


The first demonstration, to our knowledge, of an evolutionary shift in communication mode in animals is presented. Some species of Ovalipes display spectacular iridescence resulting from multilayer reflectors in the cuticle. This reflector is unique in animals because each layer is corrugated and slightly out of phase with adjacent layers. Solid layers are separated from fluid layers in the reflector by side branches acting as support struts. An effect of this reflector is that blue light is reflected over a ‘broad’ angle around a plane parallel to the sea floor when the host crab is resting. Species of Ovalipes all possess stridulatory structures. The shallow–water species with the best developed stridulatory structures are non–iridescent and use sound as a signal. Deep–water species possess poorly developed stridulatory structures and display iridescence from most regions of the body. In deep water, where incident light is blue, light display is highly directional in contrast to sound produced via stridulation. Sound and light display probably perform the same function of sexual signalling in Ovalipes, although the directional signal is less likely to attract predators. Deep–water species of Ovalipes appear to have evolved towards using light in conspecific signalling. This change from using sound to using light reflects the change in habitat light properties, perhaps the hunting mechanisms of cohabitees, and its progression is an indicator of phylogeny. The changes in sexual signalling mechanisms, following spatial–geographical isolation, may have promoted speciation in Ovalipes.

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