hermit crabs

A dirge averted

We come home from church a few weeks ago to find that Atlas had died.

Or so it seemed.

There was, outside of his shell, a limp, still Atlas.  Katherine looked in the aquarium and screamed.

We knew that hermit crabs molted, shedding their exoskeletons occasionally, but this was not a skeleton but a whole hermit crab, intact: antennae, claws, eyes on a stick.

It appeared that Atlas had succumbed to terminal depression. Or that the Pacific seawater that we buy in a box was contaminated.

We should have been ecstatic. We were free, free, FREE from hermit-crab bondage! We no longer had to worry about whether he was eating, whether he was lonely, whether he was suffocating because we hadn’t changed the water frequently enough, whether the cats would notice there was free food for the taking in that strange glass box on the kitchen counter, whether Atlas was still angry and plotting revenge.

Oddly enough, we were crushed. It seemed a personal failing that we couldn’t keep a shrimp of a crab alive for even a year with the finest accouterments that PetCo had to offer. We’d kidnapped him, and then we’d killed him. It was a sad end to a sad life.

Only it wasn’t.

Katherine believed.

Doubting Thomas that I am, I departed the death scene after a few minutes, but like Mary at Lazarus’ tomb, she weepily remained there, looking for any small sign of life. And after about 20 minutes, she shrieked again.

Damned if there wasn’t a hermit crab in that empty shell.

Again.

He had molted. It was the most astonishing thing. Unlike a snake that sheds a skin that is clearly an abandoned outer layer, Atlas shrugged off a second self that was an exact replica of himself. It was as if there were twin Atlases, and one killed the other. They were indistinguishable except that one was dead and one was alive.

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The now joyful Katherine went to Google and learned that, gross as it seems, hermits eat their exoskeletons, so we left the body in the tank for a week. Atlas would have none of it, so one day, I reverently lifted the remains out of the tank with a spatula and buried them in the planter on the deck. Old Atlas will fertilize spring flowers.

New Atlas seemed tired for a few days; miracles take energy when you do them yourself.

But soon he was back to clunking his way around the tank, and like marathoner Ryan Hall, he seems a little beefier these days, a little more capable of withstanding his miserable captivity until we can return him to the waters off Sullivan’s Island.

As we learned from his death and resurrection, that eventual parting won’t be without tears.

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The crabnapper next door

Google “accidentally took crab home from the beach,” and you’ll see we’re not the only ones facing the crabnapper’s dilemma: what to do when the beautiful, empty shell you bring home from the beach is actually occupied and taking the creature back to his home is not an option.

Unfortunately, there are also people who are taking hermit crabs home on purpose. An employee at the local pet store said she’d had two other customers buying stuff for hermit crabs recently, only they’d kidnapped theirs from Cape Cod.  One has already died, she said.

As for our temporary crab, Atlas, he’s still hanging in there, and recently moved to a bigger tank we found on the side of the road. He has sand from the Caribbean, water from the Pacific, and all the mail-order algae he can eat. I have played the Hallelujah Chorus for him. He’s listened to Shakespeare. He’s flown on a plane. It’s like he won the crab lottery. He’s the Ken Bone of crabdom.

He’s still mad as hell about it, waving his tiny claws at us like Achmed the Terrorist.

I contacted the New England Aquarium in hopes that they’d let him join one of their tanks, but the “curator of fishes” (job of the week) said they only have local species because of the possibility that critters from other regions might carry parasites or disease to which New England animals aren’t immune.

A biologist at the South Carolina Aquarium, who clearly has never waded into the ocean in New England, suggested gradually acclimating him to colder water and releasing him locally. This seemed doable, until I read this story about a lobster that was rescued and released, found dead a week later – the likely victim of temperature change.

I’ve been trying to acclimate to New England ocean water for nearly a decade. Ice baths are warmer.

We’ve asked the legendary Kelly’s Roast Beef if Atlas could join one of their saltwater fish tanks. They politely declined. We’ve posted a “lonely crab looking for friend” ad on Craigslist. Nothing.

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So, we’re still looking for a solution that doesn’t result in death or damnation – you know, in case we’ve been wrong about this whole “God made man in His image” thing, and it turns out God’s actually a striped-leg hermit crab, in which case we’re doomed.

Here is Atlas, in his natural shell. crab-020

What do you think? Is he a cool summer or a deep winter? The online color tests aren’t helping much:

Body type: Cockroach

Skin tone: Mottled

Eyes:  Brown, on a stick.

Natural hair color: I keel you for asking.