Phylum Arthropoda Subphylum Crustacea Class Malacostraca Order Thermosbaenacea Number of families 4

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Small crustaceans with a short carapace (shell) and seven free thoracic somites (segments)

Illustration: Thermosbaena mirabilis. (Illustration by Dan Erickson)

Phylum Arthropoda Subphylum Crustacea Class Malacostraca Order Thermosbaenacea Number of families 4

Thumbnail description

Small crustaceans with a short carapace (shell) and seven free thoracic somites (segments)

Illustration: Thermosbaena mirabilis. (Illustration by Dan Erickson)

Evolution and systematics

Thermosbaenacea is an order comprising seven genera arranged in four families. A total of 34 species are known as of 2003. Thermosbaenaceans were first classified within their own superorder but are now generally regarded as members of the superorder Peracarida. They and other peracarid orders that possess a short branchial carapace have sometimes been grouped into a superorder known as Brachycarida. A recent study of thermosbaenacean evolution called attention to the close relationship of thermosbaenaceans to mictaceans, an order known only since 1985, and spelaeogriphaceans, very rare crustaceans that live in fresh groundwaters.

Physical characteristics

Thermosbaenaceans have a small, elongate body. The head is short and possesses a short carapace that extends backwards over the first few thoracic somites. The first thoracic somite is fused to the head; the appendage of this somite is modified as a maxilliped, or feeding appendage, located behind the jaw. There are seven free thoracic somites, each with a biramous walking leg. Each walking leg consists of a coxa (basal segment attached to the body) and basis (segment attached to the coxa); an exopod with one or two segments; and an endopod with five segments. There are six abdominal somites known as pleonites; only the first two have short appendages called pleopods. A broad and flattened telson and a pair of flattened uropods form the tail fan, located posterior to the last pleonite. The head appendages, especially the maxillae and maxillipeds, are usually broad and carry a variety of setae (bristles). The maxilliped often has a branchial epipod that extends backwards under the short carapace. The carapace of mature females develops a large inflated area that shelters the eggs.


The distributional pattern of thermosbaenaceans lies within the limits of the ancient Tethys Sea, an ancient body of wa ter that existed during the Mesozoic Era, 248-65 million years ago. It extended from what is now Mexico across the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea into central Asia. All Holocene species are found in the zone once covered by the Tethys Sea or along its former coastlines. All extant species in this order are known from ground waters.


The first thermosbaenacean discovered, Thermosbaena mirabilis, was found living in hot springs near El Hamma, Tunisia, where the Romans built bathing houses. The name of the animal derives from the fact that these are thermal springs with water temperatures of 111-118°F (44-48°C). Other thermosbaenaceans were subsequently found in underground springs; most species, however, do not live in thermal springs. In the Caribbean, several species were found in wells drilled for drinking water. Others have been found in caves with water running through them. The water in some of these caves is oligohaline (low salinity) rather than fresh. In addition, a few species in the genus Halosbaena are known from interstitial marine waters or marine caves.


Thermosbaenaceans move primarily by walking, but can also swim by using their thoracic limbs for propulsion.

Feeding ecology and diet

Thermosbaenaceans living in hot springs feed on blue-green algae, diatoms, and other microalgae lining the rocks. Little is known about the diet of species living in other habitats. The mouth appendages of these organisms, however, are well festooned with setae located on the distal edges of the appendage segments, suggesting they might be used to sweep small particles from the crustacean's substrate. One species is known to feed on plant detritus.

Reproductive biology

Mating has not been observed. The eggs are incubated in a dorsal brood pouch formed by the swollen carapace of the mature female, and are bathed in water passing past the respiratory epipod. The young resemble miniature adults when they hatch. In one species, the young hatch before the sixth and seventh legs are fully formed, and so must undergo some development outside the brood pouch.

Conservation status

The type species of the order seems to have disappeared from the type locality. Most thermosbaenaceans are protected because their habitats are protected. None are listed by the IUCN.

Significance to humans

Thermosbaenaceans have no known significance to humans.

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