Scuttling along the beach, carrying its humble house on its back, the Ecuadorian Hermit Crab (Coenobita compressus), works hard to play its role as part of Earth’s clean-up crew. Maybe you have seen these impressive little guys in nature, or you might have even had one as a pet!
These curious creatures are native to Ecuador and Chile, where they can be found in tide-pools and in high-tide areas. While they're often observed shuffling across the beach, these guys need access to saltwater to survive. The Ecuadorian Hermit Crab metabolizes the salts in the sea water, and possesses special gill chambers that hold water to help the crab’s gills stay wet. These amazing crabs have actually adapted to land-living on land with the help of these gill chambers, which act as their lungs. How cool is that?!
What’s so special about a little crab?
This small but mighty species is incredibly important to the ecosystem they inhabit; as scavengers, a large part of their diet is made up of detritus. Biologically speaking, detritus can be defined as organic matter resulting from decomposition, or leftovers from something breaking down. As this matter is consumed by the crabs, resources are exchanged within the ecosystem. As crabs consume detrius, they produce eggs, which in turn are consumed by many marine organisms, who then continue to fuel crabs when they decompose! Because the crabs spend a considerable amount of time both on land and in water, their scavenging activity influences multiple ecosystems. These little guys can also live an average of thirty years! Just think of all the support they give our planet during that time.
When they aren’t on the clock, you might find them hanging out with their other crabby friends, making a chirping sound, which is their form of communication. Contrary to their name, Ecuadorian Hermit crabs are actually social animals. The “hermit” part of their name is believed to be because they carry their “homes'' on their backs, or because of their tendency to hide in their shells when danger is near. Either way, this crab is an adventurous creature, known to travel quickly in any direction and have been found aimlessly exploring, probably looking for their next important ecological task!
Unfortunately, despite its popularity among other marine species, the Ecuadorian Hermit Crab is threatened by pollution on beaches and a lack of new shells to choose from, due to people collecting them. These crabs are extremely picky about their new homes. So keep that in mind next time you consider bringing home that pretty shell; that could be a hermit crab's new home!
There are lots of local and international organizations raising awareness on this issue. Make sure you do your own research about the ethics of shell collecting both in Nosara and abroad. All of us here at the Wildlife Conservation Association are on a mission to conserve biodiversity in places where these critters have been seen. You can donate here to chirp your thanks to these worldly helpers!
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