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Shell Shock

Xcalak, Mexico

Have you ever seen the movie, The Long, Long Trailer? It’s a Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz classic about a newly married couple, who decide to spend their honeymoon trekking across the United States in a brand new travel trailer.  


In it, the trailer itself almost becomes a character in the story and the scene, where Lucy tries to cook dinner while Desi is driving the pair to their next destination, is uproariously funny. It made me have hiccups I laughed so hard the first time I saw it. Do yourself a favor and watch, or re-watch it. Well worth the time.

So, here we are at a wonderful housesit on the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico, also known as the Mexican Riviera.  It’s gorgeous, however getting here was arduous, at best.  Thank goodness we weren’t pulling a trailer!

Google Maps shows us to be approximately 10 miles north of a lazy fishing village called Xcalak, population 450.  If you look at the map, (above) you’ll see that Xcalak is located on a narrow strip of land that juts down into the Caribbean Sea.  If you were to go south once you get to Xcalak, after about 5 miles, you’d hit Ambergis Caye which is officially part of Belize.  If you travel north, eventually you’d find us. 

Travelling by land, there is only one road into Xcalak and once you get there paved roads cease to exist. It’s a very bumpy ride from “town” (Xcalak) to our housesit and you feel a bit like an obstacle course driver, because of all the swerving and zigzagging you have to do to avoid the pot holes.  It normally takes us 35-45 minutes to make the trip, but the scenery makes us not really care.  The ocean is the most dazzling shade of turquoise you’ve ever seen and the jungle forest is magnificent.  

I’ve been run/walking on the Xcalak road since we’ve been here. We’ve been told that crocodiles inhabit the lagoon area west of the road and that jaguars make the jungle forests around here their home.  I’ve never seen either, so they must be shy or really nice.  Of course, I don’t dare walk the road at night, but not sure if being eaten by a crocodile or jaguar is more of a threat than falling into a pot hole and breaking my neck! 

When we first arrived we were wowed by the place.  It’s right on the beach and has a pier that stretches out 90 meters into the sea. Having done my homework about the crocodiles, jaguars and boa constrictors, that inhabit the area, and being told that a “nice” snake lives in the trees and bushes next to one of the structures, I freaked out a little when I saw several long slithery looking imprints in the sand along the walking paths.  I was told not to worry, what I was seeing was crab trails.

Ah, crab trails!  My angst dissipated a bit.  I knew I could out run a crab!

After a few days, I noticed that the crabs around the area are, in fact, hermit crabs.  These multi-legged crustaceans have, much like Lucy and Desi, opted to make their homes in portable shell dwellings that were actually created by and once occupied by sea snails.  Go figure.

Rarely do you see a homeless hermit crab around here, because this place, unlike other areas, is the premium used shell lot of Mexico.  Lots of choices for the discerning hermit critters.  And they are very proud of their homes, because they love to parade around the area and show off their pads. They are everywhere and you really have to watch where you step in order not to crunch and destroy one of the mobile critters and his casa.

So it got me to thinking a lot about the hermit crab’s living arrangements.  Inquiring minds want to know things like: 

  • Do they find a small shell when they are babies and then find a larger one when as they outgrow it?
  • As adults, do they ever get tired of their current homes and want to upgrade? 
  • Do they ever see a neighbor with better digs and try to squat when the current lodger is away?
  • And what about multiples, is there such a thing as hermit crab communes?  

Here’s what I’ve discovered.

Hermit Crabs – The Ultimate Housesitters

When it comes to hermit crabs, it’s all about real estate.  When a new, prime and vacant sea shell washes up on the shore, there’s a long line of hermits waiting to get it.  The really, really good places are scooped up by the strongest and fittest and the others have to wait at the end of a housing chain.  

So most of the crabs have to occupy “second-hand” shells which provide protection for their soft bodies, but are not exactly what they want or need. Just as I guessed, they are always shopping for a new home, as they grow bigger. But even if they have already outgrown their current dwelling, they don’t take their house hunt elsewhere, but rather parade around with what they’ve got, waiting for other crabs to see the shell.  It’s sort of like human real estate agents doing open houses. A hermit looking to “move up” will wait beside his abandoned shell as more crabs show up.  They will look around the shell and inspect it.  Soon a queue of house hunters forms and they are generally lined up in size order.  Finally, when the perfect “buyer” arrives and moves in to the shell, the housing chain sparks to life as most of the crabs vacate their old shells and climb into new homes.

It’s a little like musical chairs and some of the hermits can resort to underhanded bait and switch tactics to get the most desirable shells. House moves happen quickly and unsuccessful house hunters have to take what’s left and hope that they are nearby when the next housing chain begins. Amazing!  Mother Nature is a real estate shark!

Social Crabbing

You might think that because of the fierce competition for homes, hermit crabs would prefer to live like, well, hermits.  Just the opposite is true.  Hermits are very social creatures.  They need a lot of friends.  They are happiest in large colonies, where they often sleep piled up on top of each other.  They enjoy exploring and foraging together and will even collaborate in teams to find food. The crabs here LOVE our compost pile and on any day you will find a group of shells with their hermits feasting and whooping it up! 

In the crab world, happiness precipitates longevity.  Hermit crabs can live up to 30 years in their natural beach environment.  But when removed from their natural environment, they generally don’t live more than a year in captivity.  Many die because their gills require high humidity to breath.  Also, if a hermit’s shell is ever painted (by humans) the toxins in the paint will kill them.  Crabs also need space to molt (shed their skin) and grow.  They burrow down into deep, damp sand to molt.  If removed from a sandy beach situation, a crab’s body will stop molting and eventually the crab will die.

Hermit Crab Housing Crisis

Remember the old tongue twister:

Sally sells sea shells by the sea shore.
The shells she sells are surely seashells.
So if she sells shells on the seashore,
I’m sure she sells seashore shells.“

It’s not the case here, but in many areas tourists and some businesses collect thousands of shells each year to keep as souvenirs or sell commercially. This has caused a hermit crab housing crisis. In the spring, during molting season, it’s estimated that anywhere from 30-50% of hermit crabs are living in houses that are too small because of the shell depletion.  

Bad Sally!

There are several technology companies that are doing something about this housing crisis.  In an initiative called Project ShelterMakerBot, a 3D printing company has begun to print 3D shells for the hermits.  

Kudos to MakerBot!  Thank you for caring!

From their mobile homes to their social affinity, hermit crabs are fascinating.  I’ve done a lot of crab watching lately and I’m loving ‘em.  So just like Lucy and Desi with their long, long trailer, I’m hopeful for the plight of the Xcalak crabs, wishing them a plentiful supply of roomy digs, lots of cronies to pass the days with, and long, long, healthy, happy lives.

DISCLAIMER:  All animals depicted in this story were heartily paid (in coconuts and pineapple) for their professional services in posing for the photos and video.  

Story Categories:

2018,House Sitting,Mexico

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