If you have read this blog at all, chances are you’ve heard me “complain” about all the hermit crabs I find that have taken up residency inside empty seashells I would love to collect. Well, I do understand that the shells are needed for these creatures to survive, and I take photos rather than collect. Gastropods are the perfect home for hermits, from tiny crabs to large. Hermit’s are probably the most common living creature I encounter while beach combing.
So how many types of hermits live in Florida? According to my Living Beaches book, there are four.
The Striped Hermit Crab
This is the crab I see most often while stopping off on little islands around the Indian River. The Striped Hermit crab (Clibanarius vitatus) is brown to green in color with lighter thin stripes on it’s legs. I’ve found very tiny crabs and others that were quite large. They have small claws.
This guy really hung out of his shell – it’s a pear whelk I believe – whereas usually the crabs stuff themselves down inside to hide. Many won’t come out at all when they realize a human is nearby, especially if I am holding the shell.
The National Park Service website has an interesting page all about the Striped Hermits.
The makers of seashells, called mollusks or sea snails, can fall prey to hungry sea life. Once the snail is gone, it leaves behind an empty shell which, around here, doesn’t stay empty for long. If the shell is the perfect size, a hermit crab will quickly claim it.
Because hermit crabs grow during their lifetimes, they can be found in all sizes in the wild, and will need new shells when they outgrow the old. Now, how fast they grow and need to change shells is a question I cannot answer.
I often see clusters of shells where the crabs inside seem to be checking out each other’s shell. Sometimes they will crawl all over each other while reaching out and touching the shell. Whenever a hermit crab changes shells, they do so very quickly. They are easy prey without a place to hide.
The Giant Red Hermit Crab
This red hermit crab was quite a surprising find. The poor guy was living in a mostly broken shell. I spotted him / her while walking through fairly shallow water near a river island. I couldn’t tell what the red was under the murky water and was super surprised to pick up the shell that contained this big hermit. He hung right out of the shell, and I quickly got a few photos and put him back. I’ve never seen one since. (Read my post about the day I found this Red Hermit Crab.)
The Long-wristed Hermit and Land Hermit Crab
I don’t have photos of these last two hermit crabs mentioned in my book. The land crab can live without sea water, as you might guess and it lives in the southern area of Florida. The other three types do need to be in or near water. The Long-wristed hermit likes tide pools, according to my book. It is a lighter color.
Because my beach-combing ventures usually take place along the Indian River shallows, it seems to be the Striped Hermit’s habitat. It’s a bit difficult finding information about these crabs.
I don’t suggest getting hermit crabs as pets. They are wild animals and require a lot to stay alive. Their natural environment is the best place for them. How would you like to be plucked from your home and sold to someone who had little idea of how to keep you alive? Also, hermit crabs contribute to the ecosystem in their own way. We don’t need to deplete anything that is helpful to the planet….!
Shell Collectors Beware of the Hidden Crabs
Large crabs, in too-small shells may not be able to hide completely inside, but they sure try. It may be obvious that the shell is inhabited, but often those crabs can tuck so far in that they are not visible. More than once I’ve taken a shell home, sure it was empty, only to find it moving on it’s own. I live very close to the water and have taken the shell back every time except once when a very tiny crab went unnoticed. He did die because they do need the saltwater, and I felt badly. Now, I don’t even bother collecting those types of shells.
Rule of thumb: When collecting shells in a hermit crab area, leave all the univalves, or gastropods, because chances are they are either filled or will be needed as a home for a crab.
The one exception I make to my own rule is if the shell is very large, no hermit crab will be able to use it. And therefore big shells – that are empty – can be collected. This doesn’t happen often, but I do have a couple very large horse conchs that were found empty on the muddy flats.
More Hermit Crabs in Shells in The Wild
Often I don’t post my hermit crab photos because I am usually writing about some awesome shell I saw, or other wildlife. I can get hermit crab photos any time and they have become common to me. They live inside beautiful shells and broken, ugly shells. I’m sure the crab doesn’t care as long as the size is right. They will live inside any gastropod they can find.
Hermit crabs do not kill mollusks, they wait for something else to do the dirty deed and then they move in. I like the fact that the shells get a second life.