Most oceanic islands harbor unusual and vulnerable biotas as a result of isolation. As many groups, including dominant competitors and predators, have not naturally reached remote islands, others were less constrained to evolve novel adaptations and invade adaptive zones occupied by other taxa on continents. Land crabs are an excellent example of such ecological release, and some crab lineages made the macro-evolutionary transition from sea to land on islands. Numerous land crabs are restricted to, although widespread among, oceanic islands, where they can be keystone species in coastal forests, occupying guilds filled by vertebrates on continents. In the remote Hawaiian Islands, land crabs are strikingly absent.
Here we show that absence of land crabs in the Hawaiian Islands is the result of extinction, rather than dispersal limitation. Analysis of fossil remains from all major islands show that an endemic Geograpsus was abundant before human colonization, grew larger than any congener, and extended further inland and to higher elevation than other land crabs in Oceania.
Land crabs are major predators of nesting sea birds, invertebrates and plants, affect seed dispersal, control litter decomposition, and are important in nutrient cycling; their removal can lead to large-scale shifts in ecological communities. Although the importance of land crabs is obvious on remote and relatively undisturbed islands, it is less apparent on others, likely because they are decimated by humans and introduced biota. The loss of Geograpsus and potentially other land crabs likely had profound consequences for Hawaiian ecosystems.