Wednesday, July 15, 2009

It's a Crab's Life

I learned a couple of things today. One, how wonderful it can be when your normally sourpuss child has a day where they are truly happy the entire day with little-to-no negativity. I don't know what kind of happy juice he was in today, but I loved it. Actually, it was kind of twilight-zoney. Kind of like, who are you, and what did you do with MY kid? Is that bad?

He was helping me cook dinner and he was playing chef with a butter knife and some leftover squash pieces and actually singing. Yes, my kid, playing and signing with happiness. He said hi to everyone and laughed and hugged and did what I asked him to the first time! Surely some aliens must have taken my child and left this happy child in its place. Which makes no sense at all. Oh well, I am NOT complaining. I just shook my head a lot and cast weird speculative glances at my guy.

The other thing I learned is how HARD it is to take a picture of an unwilling hermit crab. They don't stand still. If they do, it is because they are hidden inside their shell. They move at lightning speeds. And for reasons I am not sure of yet, my camera seems incapable of taking a picture of them that is not either really dark or really flash washed, so bear with me.

Most people are not aware that hermit crabs require more care than putting them in a clear plastic box not much bigger than a shoe box and throwing in some food and water. When I tell people I own hermit crabs they often say, "Yeah, we had a crab, but he died." And this is usually after a few months. I am a newbie to crab care, but right now all my crabs are at least a year in my care. I just bought the fourth one last Thursday. The first one I got in November of 2007. I got my first crab...Chester...from someone off FreeCycle, they didn't want it anymore. I call them 'him'...but I really have no idea if they are male and female. So I did a little research and discovered that crabs need heat, they can't get cold. I went to a pet store and bought an under tank heat mat. This cost about 20 bucks.

I furtively checked his temperature and provided him with the best crab food (which is made of flowers and smells GREAT) and water I could find. You can't have chlorine in their water, so I end up buying distilled water jugs for the crabs. I found nice, pretty colored sand to put in his tank. At least I got the tank for free from a friend. Or that would have been another 20 bucks or so. Then I read that crabs are not solitary, as the name would suggest, but highly social creatures. I decided Chester needed a friend and headed back to the pet store. Then I bought Hank. Now, I had two crabs and all seemed to be going well. Then Hank died. I checked the temperature and realized poor Hank had probably died of cold, because in our old house, the temperature regularly gets down to 60 degrees on a winter night. Bad news for a tropical crab that needs 75-80 with humidity.

I was distraught and headed back to the pet store, laden with guilt. I bought a 25 dollar heat lamp, plus the bulb cost 8 dollars. I set this all up, and after I was confident that the temperature was stable a few months later, I got another friend. This one had a girl name, but she only made it 5 days, so I don't even remember what the name was. At this point, I was getting thoroughly disgusted with the pet store crabs. I was trying to do everything right, and they still died. I found out that the pretty colored sand was horrible, and switched it out to regular beach sand. Much better for getting wet and digging in. I purchased another crab, which my son named, Sheldon. Very apt, I thought. Sheldon survived, and then Chester went underground. It was as if he was waiting for me to deepen the sand.

He didn't come up for several days and I was REALLY worried. Great, I thought, now he is dead. After extensive Internet research I discovered he was MOLTING. In order to grow, they go underground for weeks or even months, depending on the size of the crab, and remove their outer skin. The new skin is fresh, shiny and sharp...and then they can grow bigger. I was very naughty though and did what they websites told me not to do. I checked on him. I even dug him up once to make sure he wasn't really dead. It is a miracle I didn't kill him because they are extremely vulnerable during a molt. After they emerge they are very soft for a while, and can break limbs easily. They usually eat parts of their old exoskeleton...the calcium helps them harden up.

About a year ago, I found that really cool pet store, the ARK in Ames, Iowa. I mentioned in a previous post that it is a little messy in there...but they had fantastic crabs. The salesperson told me that he had worked for one of the 'chain' pet stores for a couple years, and their crabs have to travel in horrible conditions all over the country before they get to the store. The ARK's crabs are directly shipped. I noticed a big difference in how healthy and vigorous all the pets were there. I bought Fred, my largest crab to date (seen above) and brought him home, hoping that there would be no shell fights.

Fred is about the size of a golf ball, which mean he is pretty old compared to the hermit crabs a lot of people have. To get to that size, they must molt many, many times. When they are captured in the wild, they have already molted several times successfully. Unfortunately, because of poor conditions, their first molt in captivity is often their last. Since he was so large, I was very concerned that he would shell fight with the other two crabs. A shell fight is a confrontation between two or more crabs that involves pinching, aggression, and sometimes chirping or squeaking. Yes, a hermit crab makes a NOISE. The first time I heard it, it really freaked me out. I heard this really high pitch cricket like noise, and saw the crab waving his claws around. I couldn't believe it came out of him. There was one shell fight, where Sheldon was attacked and was naked for a short time. Chester was after his shell, and wasn't going to take no for an answer. I removed them both and coaxed Sheldon into a new shell.

This post from last year shows Sheldon's trauma.

Since then, I have learned so many things, that crabs need to be misted...that they need extra snacks beside their crab powder, and even that crabs need salt water in addition to fresh water. I just bought a bag of special salt to make them an additional water dish. So let's recap. My FREE crab that was supposed to be SO EASY to take care of has cost me:

tank (20$ if I had to buy it)
under tank heater ($20)
heat lamp and bulb ($33)
dishes and climbing things and caves (at least $60)
food (at least $40)
water (at least $30)
crabs themselves ($36)
sand ($20)
rocks from yard and glass dish to make pond in (free, cause I had them)
thermometer ($12)
extra shells (at least $40)
caliper for measuring shells (that's just fun...$3)

Oh yeah...I didn't tell you about the extra shells. They love to change their shells. Sometimes I will put a new shell in, and they will all take turns caressing it, or trying it on. Sometimes someone takes the shell within minutes of me putting in the tank. Sometimes they put it on, change their mind, and then put their old shell on. This is supposedly for the purposes of growing, but I think they just like to change outfits.

Anyways, I am getting away from the point.

My FREE crab has so far ended up costing me: Almost $300!!!!!! Actually I figured it was more than that, so not as shocking as I imagined. I just realize it is no wonder that most people's crabs die, with all the work that goes into keeping them alive. They are every bit as demanding as a lizard, in terms of environment. And they have grown on me. I think they are cute now, in our house, when someone doesn't want to talk about something...they do the claw hand in front of their face. A crab will pull into its shell and cover the hole with its biggest claw to avoid you if it feels defensive.

I just cleaned their crabitat...ha ha. I put the stuff in backwards of the way it was, and they are so psyched. They love change, and get bored if stuff stays the same too long (don't we all). All four of them...including Earl, the newest addition, are roaming around the tank checking things out. And since they are nocturnal, I know they will be up way past me, perhaps partying till dawn. So the next time someone tells you, "I've got crabs!"...resist the urge to run...they may just be talking about my invertebrate friends.

For more information on hermit crabs...try:


  1. Those crabs are so cute! Do they move a lot or just hang out in the sun? The ones I saw in pet stores usually look lethargic and near-dead, but maybe that's because they're not being treated right. Maybe when Nick is older I should get some. Right now, he'd just try to eat them. Would the cats try to eat them?

  2. They are more active in the evening and at night. If you get them out, they move around a lot. I don't think the cats could eat them...they pull into their shells and you can't get them out. They might pinch the kitties' noses though!


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