New species of squat lobster helping to revive an Aboriginal language

How the naming of a new species of squat lobster has helped an Aboriginal community reconnect to its ‘sleeping’ language.

A picture of three squat lobsters from above
Three of the seven new species of squat lobster: (L to R) Munida lutruwita, Munida julumunyju and Munida abrolhos.

When naming new species scientists traditionally turn to Latin but with these squat lobsters, Dr Anna McCallum took a different approach.

The Museums Victoria Research Associate sought out Aboriginal communities to name several species, that were discovered during deep-sea research surveys off the coast of Western Australia and Tasmania.

‘I thought it would be really great to celebrate and use Indigenous language in these names for Australian species,’ says Dr McCallum, lead author of the new paper describing seven new species of squat lobster.

‘I really wanted to do that with the permission and collaboration of those Indigenous communities.’

One of these species was named by the Nhanda people, traditional landowners on Western Australia’s central west coast.

Nhanda is considered a ‘sleeping’ language because it is only spoken by a few people.

‘I was put in touch with Dr Steven Kelly, an Indigenous anthropologist at the University of Melbourne who is working to revive the Nhanda language, and he was really enthusiastic,’ says Dr McCallum.

A Nhanda man himself, Dr Kelly invited her to bring the idea to a language day at the Bundiyarra-Irra Wanga Language Centre, in Geraldton, in 2019.

‘It’s a wonderful opportunity for all because naming anything in Aboriginal language is an awesome honour,’ he says. 

The community voted on a name for the new species and settled on the scientific name Munida maatijadakurnaaku—maatijada, meaning crawling, and kurnaaku, meaning crayfish.

a poster with a drawing of a small crustacean with long claws
A poster celebrating the naming of Munida maatijadakurnaaku designed by the Bundiyarra-Irra Wangga Language Centre. Artwork by Teharnie Martin.

‘My family were over the moon to have this recognition,’ says Dr Kelly.

‘I think it’s a wonderful gesture to just acknowledge Nanda people, my people, and allow them that space to drive the bus, so to speak.’

Dr Kelly says the experience has also led to the development of a program to revitalise the Nhanda language.

‘It’s a wonderful initiative that stems from having ownership of something like the naming of a squat lobster,’ he says.

‘When you get community involvement and people taking it onboard, that is a clear indication of something that is powerful.

‘I think that needs to be acknowledged and Anna needs to be acknowledged for allowing us to have that space.’

Seven new species

Munida maatijadakurnaaku, is just one of seven new species of squat lobster in the Munida genus, described by Dr McCallum and her colleagues—five of which were named in consultation with Aboriginal communities.

A map of Australia with dotted locations of marine biology surveys

Munida galalala

Galalala means lobster in Dambimangari language.

Munida julumunyju

Julumunyju means prawn in Kariyarra language.

Munida jurunjurun

Jurun jurun means crayfish in Bardi language.

Munida lutruwita

Lutruwita is the original name of Tasmania in palawa kani, the language of the Tasmanian Aboriginal people.

Munida abrolhos

Named after the Abrolhos Islands, near to where the specimen was found.

Munida leeuwin

Named after the Leeuwin current which flows off the west coast of Australia.

Munida maatijadakurnaaku

The species name chosen by Nhanda people: Maatijada means crawling; kurnaaku translates as crayfish or yabbie.

This map shows where the new squat lobsters were found on research voyages. Click the + symbols to learn more about the meaning behind their names.

Dr Kelly says he hopes this experience serves as a template for future collaboration with traditional landowners.

‘I know that a lot of research in the past has been very one-dimensional and has taken from Aboriginal people and never given back.

‘And this just goes to show what we can achieve when we work together in partnership—and that goes right across the board for Australia as a nation too.’

‘I think it’s a wonderful concept. Let’s all walk together and we can do amazing things.’ Dr Steven Kelly

‘Butterflies of the sea’

The name squat lobster refers to a diverse group of decapod crustaceans that are separated into two superfamilies: Chirostyloidea and Galatheoidea.

‘They’re called squat because their tails are tucked under their body and they’ve got these really long arms and little claws,’ explains Dr McCallum.

‘Even though they're called lobsters, they're actually not closely related to lobsters; they’re more related to hermit crabs.’

The most famous of these is perhaps the Yeti Crab—a hairy-limbed crustacean that lives close to hydrothermal vents.

They are generally deep-sea creatures but can be found anywhere from thousands of metres below the surface, to shallower tropical coral reefs.  

A photograph of a brightly coloured small crustacean
Shallower species of squat lobster, like this Phylladiorhynchus pusillus, are brightly coloured.

‘Many species live on coral. They sit on a coral and wave their arms, and they can grab food passing by,’ says Dr McCallum.

‘The shallower species are often quite colourful, and they have nice patterns, so they have been called the “butterflies of the sea”.’

Researching the deep sea and its fauna is much more difficult than it is on land, and not just because of the location. 

It is expensive, takes a long time, and sampling sizes are limited.

To make best use of what is available, scientists use groups of relatively common animals that can be found across the globe—like brittle stars and, of course, squat lobsters.

a squat lobster attached to coral
Squat lobsters like this one (from the genus Uroptychus) can hang onto coral with their legs, leaving their claws free to catch any prey that floats too close.

‘They’re a useful group for understanding biodiversity,’ says Dr McCallum, because their taxonomy (species and scientific classification) is relatively well understood.

‘Taxonomists have been producing keys and summarising the knowledge from around the world, but there was a gap in Australia—a lot of new species have been discovered but not described.’

New species hidden in museum collections 

If you want to discover a species that is new to science, one of the best places to look is in a museum.

Carefully preserved and catalogued in Museums Victoria’s science collections are potentially thousands of species, waiting to be described. 

That was the case with these squat lobsters, which were collected on research voyages dating back to 2005.

‘I was working on material from surveys along the Western Australian continental margin and when we were doing those surveys almost 30 per cent of the species that we collected were likely to be new to science,’ says Dr McCallum.

The variations between species can be quite subtle, and most squat lobsters are only a few centimetres in size, so determining if a specimen is a new species requires patience and an eye for detail.

A photograph of a woman holding a jar containing dozens of small crustaceans
Dr Anna McCallum is a taxonomist and deep-sea ecologist with expertise on decapod crustaceans.

‘With deep-sea marine fauna, a lot of the species in Australia are also found in the Indo West Pacific—they're quite widespread,’ says Dr McCallum.

‘So when you find a new squat lobster and you're looking to discover what it is, you're looking not just at the Australian species, you need to compare it with almost all those species in the entire Indo West Pacific, which is hundreds of species.’

One method to compare these species, says Dr McCallum, is with traditional scientific illustration.

Using a microscope fitted with a camera lucida—a device to project the image on to paper—scientists can trace the specimen to accurately illustrate the detailed characteristics of a species.

‘I do a lot of drawings and illustrate characters like the legs and the antennae and then I compare those illustrations with those from the literature,’ she says.

‘Those really detailed drawings are so important, and that's what takes a lot of time—they’re quite meticulous.’

an illustration and photo of a small crustacean side by side
Dr McCallum highlights defining features of a species, like Munida abrolhos here, by drawing the type specimen.

But sometimes images of the specimens can only take you so far.

‘In some cases, it really helps to actually have specimens,’ says Dr McCallum.

Dr McCallum travelled to the Paris Natural History Museum, which hosts the largest collection of squat lobsters from the Pacific, to compare her proposed new species with its specimens.  

‘That was a better way of being actually able to look at…all the variation and see is my species really different to those other species.’

In addition to describing the seven new species, Dr McCallum and her colleagues identified a further 14 species from the genus Munida that have extended their range into Australian waters.

Before this research 32 species of Munida were known to occur in Australia; a two thirds increase, with just one publication.

But what is the importance of knowing about these new species of animals that most people are unlikely to come across?

‘If we want to preserve biodiversity or understand how it might respond to climate change and fishing pressure, then we need to know where it occurs, whether species are widespread or have relatively small distributions.

‘There are a whole lot of questions that are yet to be answered for these environments,’ says Dr McCallum.

You can read Dr McCallum's research paper on Memoirs of Museum Victoria

Robert French
Digital Storyteller

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