Written by ASHLEY LADLIE
The hermies are restless.
It happens two or three times a year. All of a sudden, the hermit crabs in my yard are active and plentiful.
They’re making quite a bit of noise these days. Granted, my remote hut in the woods is superlatively peaceful. But I’ve found that the quieter your surroundings, the louder small noises become.
Only once or twice have I heard the hermit crab chirp of lore, and about that I’m not even sure. What I am subject to is less dramatic, but still hard to ignore. Simply, their hard claw legs crawling steadily over the dog bowls, navigating the wire shelves underneath the kitchen sink, and the clinking of shell against dish from within said sink. Lately, I’m plucking a hermie from her spot among the unclean mugs on just about a daily basis.
As has been previously mentioned, I only have walls on the middle part of my house, and so lately the crabs have been making their sweet way all over the wrap-around porch that operates as multi-purpose living space. Rarely do I bother to disrupt their path. Which is not to say that I don’t inadvertently kick a hermie from time to time. But that’s the risk they take when trespassing.
Only if they enter the inner quarters do I take them back outside. Tons of stuff crammed into a tiny space creates many a perfect spot for shy critters to hide.
And let me tell you, the last thing I need is another animal using my nooks, crannies, and shelf space as their personal toilet. Nor do I need to find dead shriveled little hermit crabs, divested of their shells, behind the furniture when I move it to clean. The hermies can go ahead and die outside. They don’t need the shelter and warmth of my inner sanctum to do it in.
I mean, a girl’s gotta have some domestic standards.
Boris and the Beginning of an Obsession
When I moved to my hut in the woods, it didn’t take long to develop a fascination/obsession with the hermit crabs living around me.
A lover of most living beings, I welcomed their presence in my yard. My very own forest creature friends! On semi-sabbatical during my first months in this spot, I allowed myself luxurious periods of time to do things like take nature photos, bask in the exquisite beauty of blooming orchids… and contemplate the daily life of hermit crabs.
At first I wanted to paint their shells. (Obviously.) But I soon realized this made them more susceptible to predators, and so I released the fanciful urge to decorate my lawn crabs. Not, however, before I had the inspired notion to grab one of the biggest crabs and write Boris on his shell in purple Sharpie.
Boris showed up frequently in the weeks directly after his naming, and less frequently during the next waves of hermie activity later in the year. It always pleased me when Boris came to visit. Because I could say, “Hey there, Boris,” and feel a sort of continuing connection with the creature. It could have been a different crab for all I know (a female crab, at that), but my anthropomorphic enhancement of this particular arthropod (try saying that after a couple drinks) always brightened my day.
One night— during which I had entertained an overnight guest— I woke to the sound of hermit crabs climbing over my dog Hershey’s bowls and knocking into the porch furniture. I got up to see what the racket was all about and found, among other hermies, Boris, making his way from one side of the porch to the other.
“Boris!” I scolded with endearment, “What are you doing? Why are you making so much noise? Come on, you’re going back outside.”
And with that, I returned him to the yard, did the same with his clickety-clack buddies, and went back to bed.
I had forgotten about the incident the next day, and was making a very late breakfast when my guest suddenly asked, “Were you talking to someone named Boris last night? Who the hell is Boris?!”
Manna from Heaven
Noticing that the crabs took advantage of Hershey’s dog food bowl — even when empty, seeming to just enjoy crawling around in the oily residue — I decided to start feeding them. At my most obsessed, I was probably spending upwards of an hour a day feeding and observing the hermit crabs.
I don’t know if they put it out on hermie social media or what, but all I have to do is throw a couple pieces of food in the direction of a hermit crab or two and the rest of them start coming out from between the crevices in the rock walls and underneath the piles of leaves to get their claws on the goods. In less than a minute, there is an undeniable crunching of leaves as the hermies swarm for the food I throw in their direction.
I do my best to make sure everyone has at least one piece. I try to give the bigger hermit crabs larger pieces of dog food and the babies the smaller or broken pieces.
I’m often forced to break up fights. Hermit crabs can be real assholes! They really don’t give a damn about their crustacean brothers and sisters, only concerned with their own survival.
If a hermit crab sees that another one has a piece of food, he will go after it. (I find the hermies are especially aggressive if they’ve been fed coffee grounds, a popular thing to do on my rock.) Even if I throw another piece of dog food at the predatory hermit crab, even if my aim is good enough to actually hit that crab on the shell, it’s often in such intense pursuit that my redirection efforts do no good.
I have broken up several hermit crab fights in the last 18 months. Increasingly with my bare hands, although I used to, and sometimes still do, use my long-handled grabbers.
“Knock it off,” I cluck at them like a den mother, “Stop being a bully! There’s enough for all of you.”
After a crab has gotten its claws on a piece of dog food, it walks backward toward its hole or some other such place deemed safe enough to stop and eat. The symphony of leaves subsides and I being to hear the claws (I don’t think hermit crabs have teeth?) breaking up the dog food into sizes fit for their little crab mouth holes. “Crunch, crunch, crunch,” goes the sound of hermit crab contentment, “Crunch, crunch, crunch.”
Real Estate Transactions
Hermit crabs will also attack any crab whose shell it covets, willing to force the victim out of its home and take over. It’s plunder, plain and simple.
And so along with feeding the hermit crabs, I also began to obsess over providing them with new habitats. Hermit crabs grow, you see, and thus need new shells every so often. Besides trying to avoid hermie aggression by providing adequate shelter for all of the crabs, I also noticed that some of the crabs’ shells were in poor condition. Too big for them or too small, or full of holes leaving them even more vulnerable as prey. (I have seen far too many pecked out hermit crabs shells on the property — legs strewn about, shell violently overturned, only the hard pieces remaining, the soft, digestible meat now existing as bird food… or bird poop, as it were.)
For a few months, I made it my mission to collect potential hermit crab shells whenever possible. Once I was visiting a friend on St. Thomas and we were in a very old little West Indian house owned by a very old little West Indian woman who now lived in a nursing home and rented her home to a family friend. It was my lucky day. To my great delight, I discovered a huge pile of whelk shells in one corner of her walled-in front yard. She apparently ate a lot of whelks and disposed of the shells by throwing them against the wall. I came back to St. John with two large plastic bags full of whelk shells in various shapes and sizes, some plugged with decades-old dirt. I lovingly washed them out and set them up in the (now defunct) Hermit Crab Shell Exchange for browsing and trying on.
And browse and try on they do. I know. For I have watched the process on more than one occasion.
First, they crawl up close to the potential shell and feel it all over with its antennae. Once past the antennae test, they examine the entire interior and exterior with their front legs. This can take around 5 minutes. They are thorough. If the shell passes the leg exam, then the hermit crab is ready to actually try the shell on for size, a dangerous prospect. Outside their shell, hermies are especially vulnerable to attack.
It’s a slow and methodical approach they take to trying on a new shell. First, they position it with the hole pointing skyward. Then they circle, finding the best side from which to hoist themselves on top. Upon finding the right launching point, they ground down into their spot and position their legs on either side of the opening. When everything is precisely aligned, they swiftly hoist their weird nubby little bodies out of their current shell and into their new potential home. The switch happens in a millisecond. If you blink or glance away, you’re apt to miss it.
(I employed a similar method when changing my shirt for gym class in the middle school locker room. The goal to protect my weird nubby little body parts from ridicule rather than death, which in adolescence can seem just as daunting.)
The hermit crab will then use his body weight to pull the shell on top of him. He will stand and adjust for a few moments before walking around the exchange as if it were a shoe store.
Sometimes the hermit crab takes to its new shell easily, abandoning its old one without ceremony and continuing on its hermit crab way. But sometimes the new shell proves to be an inappropriate fit, in which case the hermie will change back into its old shell and continue the search for a new home.
The (non) coincidence of my living in a hut in the woods as far away from town as I can get on a tiny, secondary island in the Caribbean being concurrent with a hermit crab fascination is not lost on me.
We are kindred spirits, the hermies and I.
Okay, not really.
I mean, I like to think that I’m a little more highly-evolved.
But hermit crabs have taught me a few things. Most notably, the value of slow and steady progress. They do not move swiftly or with much grace, but they are persistent creatures, traveling long distances in short periods with impressive fashion. It behooves me to remember this when I feel I’m not making sufficient progress on my life goals. I don’t need to sprint, I don’t need to look awesome…I just need to keep moving in the right direction.
I can hear a few of them making their way across my tile kitchen floor as I type this. Turning around, I see three of them in my limited line of sight. I am certain there are more.
The hermies are restless.
It’s feeding time.