a1 Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Monash University, Clayton, Victoria 3168, Australia
The red crab Gecarcoidea natalis is the most abundant land crab on Christmas Island, Indian Ocean, and is found wherever native rain forest is still intact. The largest crabs grow to > 120 mm carapace width and reach > 500 g in mass. Red crabs are diurnally active, and moisture appears to be the most important factor governing surface activity – activity was nil below 77% RH, relatively low at 87% RH, and high above 95% RH. The crabs retreat to the interior of their burrows during dry periods, but emerge rapidly in response to rain. Because of their dependence on moisture for surface activity, red crabs show greater levels of activity during the wet season. Annual breeding migrations and moulting activity decreased the density of surface-active crabs at the main study sites for several weeks at the start of the wet season, and fruit and leaf fall caused dramatic local increases in the density of active red crabs. Density and biomass at the main study sites averaged 1.3 crabs m-2 and 1454 kg ha-1, respectively, and 1.2 crabs m-2 and 1137 kg ha-1 at a total of five sites across the island. Rough calculations suggest that the island-wide population is at least 100 million individuals. Red crabs are the dominant consumer on the forest floor, and consume seeds, seedlings and leaf litter. Because they are both abundant and widespread, these animals have the potential to be the most important determinant of pattern and process in rain forest on Christmas Island.
(Accepted May 18 1996)
p1 Current address: Ecosystem Dynamics Group, Research School of Biological Sciences, Australian National University, Canberra ACT 0200 Australia.