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Last Updated: Wednesday, 8 March 2006, 12:10 GMT
Furry 'lobster' found in Pacific
The animal's pincers are covered in sinuous hair-like strands

Marine biologists have discovered a crustacean in the South Pacific that resembles a lobster or crab covered in what looks like silky fur.

Kiwa hirsuta is so distinct from other species that scientists have created a new taxonomic family for it.

A US-led team found the animal last year in waters 2,300m (7,540ft) deep at a site 1,500km (900 miles) south of Easter Island, an expert has claimed.

Details appear in the journal of Paris' National Museum of Natural History.

The diving expedition was organised by Robert Vrijenhoek of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in California.

The "Yeti Crab", as it has been dubbed, is white and 15cm (5.9in) long, according to Michel Segonzac of the French Research Institute for Exploitation of the Sea (Ifremer).

In what he has described as a "surprising characteristic", the animal's pincers are covered with sinuous, hair-like strands. It seems to reside around some Pacific deep sea hydrothermal vents, which spew out fluids that are toxic to many animals.

Bacterial refuge

Dr Segonzac told the BBC News website that the "hairy" pincers contained lots of filamentous bacteria.

Some scientists think the bacteria detoxify poisonous minerals from the water, allowing K. hirsuta to survive around the vents.

Ecology around hydrothermal vents   Image: MBARI/PAR 5/B. Virjenhoek/AFP/Getty Images
K. hirsuta is part of a diverse ecology that exists around Pacific vents
Alternatively, the animal may actually feed on the bacteria that live in the hair-like strands.

But observations of its behaviour suggest it may be a general carnivore. Dr Segonzac said he and his colleagues saw the animal fighting with two crabs over a piece of shrimp.

From its general shape and appearance, the new creature resembles freshwater "squat lobsters" found in South America. But Dr Segonzac said that genetic analysis showed it was closer to marine members of this group.

K. hirsuta is blind; the researchers found it had only "the vestige of a membrane" in place of eyes, the Ifremer researcher said.

Mitten crabs

Paul Clark of the department of zoology at the Natural Histroy Museum said the characteristic strands, known as setae, that cover the crustacean's pincers are similar to those found on Chinese mitten crabs and some other crustacean species.

Kiwa hirsuta   Image: MBARI/PAR 5/B. Virjenhoek/AFP/Getty Images
The dive discovered the animals at a location south of Easter Island
"Whether these setae are for growing or cultivating bacteria, I've no idea, but that could be one explanation. But it would also be interesting to find out whether there's anything else living in there," Mr Clark told the BBC News website.

Researchers have found other small crustaceans taking refuge in the setae of mitten crabs.

The team that found the crustacean said that while legions of new ocean species are discovered each year, it is quite rare to find one that merits a new family.

The family was named Kiwaida, from Kiwa, the goddess of crustaceans in Polynesian mythology.

See the hairy-legged creature in the ocean

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