The cost of a claw

New evidence explains why some snapping shrimp have larger weapons than others.

Snapping shrimp, Alpheus angulosus. Image credit: Jason P. Dinh (CC BY 4.0)

From deer antlers to crab claws, weapons are some of the most elaborate and enormous structures in the animal kingdom. Within a species, weapon size generally increases with the size and condition of an individual, and those with larger weapons are usually better at fending off more diminutive competitors.

Although it may seem desirable for all individuals to have large weapons, size varies greatly within a species. The ‘handicap principle’ proposes that the cost of bearing a weapon dictates the variation in weapon size. Smaller or less fit individuals pay more for weapons than larger or fitter animals, so smaller individuals tend to grow smaller weapons. Although popular, only a handful of studies have demonstrated experimental evidence that supports this theory.

To test the handicap principle, Dinh and Patek studied a group of crustaceans known as snapping shrimp. Each shrimp has one enlarged claw that it uses as a weapon to fire imploding vapor bubbles at opponents during fights. Larger snapping shrimp have bigger enlarged claws and tend to win more contests. Males also have larger weapons than females, and this sex difference is amplified during the breeding season.

Dinh and Patek studied weapon size in several species of snapping shrimp. Measurements showed that after controlling for body size, individuals with larger weapons had smaller abdomens, suggesting there is a tradeoff between weapon size and abdomen size. Furthermore, small males exhibited the steepest tradeoff, in line with the handicap principle.

Snapping shrimp also showed sex-specific costs and benefits. After controlling for body size, females with larger weapons produced fewer and smaller eggs, while males with larger weapons were more likely to be paired with females and generally paired with larger females. This suggests that weapons are particularly burdensome to female shrimp and particularly beneficial to males, especially during the breeding season.

These findings provide elusive evidence for the handicap principle and extend the theory to explain sex and seasonal differences in the size of snapping shrimp weapons. More broadly, the findings highlight the value of studying both male and female animal weapons when, historically, the focus has been on male weaponry.