"It's been a phenomenon for probably a third year in a row," Tony Child, Thanet Coast project manager, told LiveScience. He estimated about 25,000 of the dead velvet swimming crabs (Necora puber) were in piles this year, where birds are now ferociously feeding on their carcasses. [Image of beaches littered with dead crabs]
The velvet swimming crab has bright red eyes, with a coat of fine hair on its shell giving it a velvety texture. The crabs come closer to shore at this time of year, Child said, where they feed on the seaweed.
In the past, environmental scientists ran tests to check for disease or other physiological problems with the crabs, coming up empty-handed. But Child said every year the die-offs have occurred after there was snow on the beaches. The meltwater causes temperatures near shore to drop, and Child said the deaths must be linked to hypothermia.
"I don't really know the cause but it seems to be cold-related," Child said.
Reports of the crabs washing ashore began around Christmas, but it wasn't until the recent few days that they've been piling ashore. The crabs will remain on the beach, where they'll be feasted on by birds and otherwise decay and enter back into the system's life cycle.
The crab deaths come on the heels of other bizarre animal deaths, including thousands of blackbirds that reportedly fell out of the skies in Arkansas on New Year's Eve, leading to speculation that booming fireworks disoriented them and caused them to collide with buildings.
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