I sense the earth moving yet it’s a subtle sensation. I’ve detected a clattering, too. It sounds as if a small army is mobilizing in the distance. I refocus my senses. There! Below me! It’s as if I’ve crested a mountain where the valley below has opened to reveal the organized turmoil of an army unit. There appear to be trucks, tanks, and armored personnel carriers–all cloaked in the camouflage of leaf, sand, and moss but it’s not an army.
It’s been months since I visited my island friend and I had forgotten about the hermit crabs that live beside her back door. The military analogy dies hard as I admire the shells that these soft-bodied crustaceans use as armor—shells abandoned by their original inhabitants. Collectively, these fortress-bearing crabs resemble an army though the proper term is colony. My vision adjusts and I begin to appreciate them individually. One of them is protected by the largest tulip shell I’ve ever seen. And those claws! Down underneath, reddish-brown tinged by purple, the claws look as menacing as any man-made weapon and stand in stark contrast to the beauty of the triton, turban and conch shells many are wearing. My friend has seen to it that her troops are well-equipped. I marvel at the number as more and more of them reveal themselves through movement. There must be fifty in this convoy which appears to be headed toward a dark knoll that did not exist minutes ago–not until my friend dumped her coffee grounds. The grounds are a favorite meal for the hermies and a reminder to me that coffee awaits.
It’s fair to say hermit crabs are unusual pets given that dogs can be found in nearly 40 percent of households. Even saltwater fish, found only in .7 percent of households, vastly outnumber hermit crabs. My friend would remind me that her unusual pets are, technically, Coenobita clypeatus, or Caribbean hermit crabs which, despite their name, are very social animals that often live in colonies of this size. She also convinced me long ago to dismiss any skepticism I might have harbored about their suitability as pets. She knows these animals well. She’s even known some of them for years because hermit crabs can live for two or three decades.
As hermit crabs age and grow, they must periodically exchange their shells for larger ones–a process my friend actually instigates by placing shells beside her door that she finds on her beachcombing expeditions. The chain reaction of hermies exchanging shells is entertaining. It can also become competitive for hermies looking to improve their lot in life. It’s like an older child receiving new clothes with the hand-me-downs being quarreled over by younger siblings.
My friend and I have consumed enough coffee in the past for me to have also learned that hermit crabs are invertebrates. They have an exoskeleton, a segmented body, and jointed appendages (ten of them). They belong to the arthropod family–the most species-rich family on earth which includes a number of other animals that could be described as unusual pets such as ants, centipedes, crickets, sea monkeys, scorpions and tarantulas.
Unusual or not, what is important about any pet is that it’s important to its owner. My friend has sheltered her hermies from hurricanes and protected them when predatory birds have taken up residence nearby. She studies them. She cares about them. Hermit crabs are no less cuddly than a lizard, fish, frog or snake. But cuddly isn’t a requirement for a pet nor is playful or common. The caring is what’s important and pet owners know the rewards are many. In my friend’s case, that includes exercise from shelling, a curiosity that stimulates the mind, stress relief, and a sense of purpose. I suppose one might even add the health benefits of drinking coffee—a thought that leads me to wonder if maybe decaf would be better for her hermies. I suspect I’ll learn the answer over a cup or two.