A big year for small Dungeness crab megalopae

Since I am studying the genomics of Dungeness crab megalopae, I first need to catch some megalopae and extract their DNA! Both last year and this year we have collected Dungeness crab megalopae in Yaquina Bay at the Hatfield Marine Science Center. The Dungeness crab megalopae are about the size of the eraser on a pencil.


We use a light trap to catch Dungeness crab megalopae. A light trap is a device used to collect the larval stages of marine fishes and invertebrates. A light is placed inside a clear container with several funnel entrances on the outside of the container and a mesh collection chamber on the bottom of the container. Below is a picture of the light trap that we use. The light trap is placed in the water and tied to a dock. The trap floats just under the surface of the water and shines bright like a beacon at night.

Light Trap Used to Collect Dungeness Crab Megalopae

Some larval stages, such as Dungeness crab megalopae, are attracted to light and move towards light sources. This behavior is called positive phototaxis. You have probably seen this phenomenon when you turn on an outdoor-light at night and then within the hour moths are surrounding the light. For this reason, marine light trapping is an effective way to collect live larval fishes, or live Dungeness crab megalopae.

Dungeness Crab Megalopae

At night, Dungeness crab megalopae are attracted to the light in the light trap. They swim towards the trap and through the funnel entrances where they are then entrapped within the container. In the morning, the trap is pulled out of the water and the collection chamber is emptied. We count how many Dungeness crab megalopae are collected each night and preserve a subsample of the megalopae for genomic analyses.

Light Trap Floating Below the Surface in Yaquina Bay

Our light trapping for Dungeness crab megalopae in Yaquina Bay follows methods from Dr. Alan Shanks’ Lab at the University of Oregon’s Oregon Institute of Marine Biology (OIMB) on Coos Bay in Charleston, Oregon. At OIMB, the Shanks Lab has been light trapping and documenting the daily abundances of Dungeness crab megalopae for over a decade. They are studying how oceanographic conditions impact Dungeness crab megalopae recruitment patterns. Dr. Leif Rasmuson, a 2011-2012 Malouf Scholar, worked on this long-term project.

You may remember from my first post, that I am specifically looking at how coastal upwelling, the timing of spring transition, and the Pacific Decadal Oscillation influence annual Dungeness crab genetic composition. The reason I am studying these three specific ocean conditions is because Shanks and colleagues have found relationships between these three ocean conditions and the annual abundance of recruiting megalopae collected by light trap in Coos Bay, Oregon.

Megalopae Light Trapping Locations in Oregon 
(Photo Adapted from Rasmuson 2013)

The Dungeness crab megalopae recruitment season is April through September each year. In 2017, we caught a total of 12,000 megalopae in Yaquina Bay throughout the season. Currently, we are only two and a half months into the 2018 Dungeness crab megalopae recruitment season, but it is already turning out to be a big year for megalopae recruitment catches. This year we have caught over a half-million Dungeness crab megalopae in our Yaquina trap! And the Shanks Lab at OIMB has also been seeing record numbers of megalopae recruits this year. It is a very exciting time to be studying Dungeness crab megalopae!

A Big Daily Catch of Dungeness Crab Megalopae in the Yaquina Bay Light Trap (May 2018)

So, I mentioned that we preserve some megalopae from the light trap for later genomic analysis. To study the genomic composition of Dungeness crab megalopae, we need to extract the DNA from the megalopae. In fisheries genetics, we immediately preserve fish or crab tissue while in the field by placing a fish fin, a crab leg, or a full megalopae into a plastic tube of ethanol. This ensures that the DNA does not degrade before we can extract the DNA from the fish or crab tissue.

Preserved Megalopae Collected from Yaquina Bay, Newport, Oregon
(Photo by Ketchum 2017)

DNA extraction sounds like it might be a complicated process, but it is relatively a simple protocol. You can actually extract your own DNA quite easily with ingredients from under your sink! Take a look at the below video if you want to try and extract your own DNA!


When we extract fish or crab DNA in the laboratory, we use slightly different chemicals than in the above video, small plastic tubes instead of plastic cups, a heating step to break the double stranded DNA into single strands, and a centrifuge machine and filters to separate the DNA from the rest of the solution. Think of the centrifuge machine like the spin cycle on your washing machine. The wet clothes spin at high speed and the water is removed from the clothes by being forced out of the small holes in the sides of washing machine like a filter. You are left with only dry clothes and no water, just like you are left with only DNA and not the liquids you used to extract the DNA.

Laboratory DNA Extraction
(Photo from http://2017.igem.org/)

We extract the DNA from many Dungeness crab megalopae collected throughout the 2017 and the 2018 recruitment season. The next step is to determine the sequence of ‘A’s, ‘T’s, ‘G’s, and ‘C’s in the extracted DNA so we can conduct genomic analyses and better understand how ocean conditions are impacting the genomics of Dungeness crab.