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Every year around this time, shops lining the beach city boardwalks fill their familiar wire cages with curious critters. Tourist children ogle as golf-ball sized crustaceans cling to the wires, and to one another, with hairy purplish legs and almost menacing, if not so comically small, claws.

The shells sheathing their squishy abdomens feature images of Spongebob Squarepants and the New York Giants’ logo, and that’s it; the kids are hooked. After parents cave in to those wonder-filled eyes, the youngsters dance off, swinging a cage no bigger than a designer handbag to and fro into the sunset.

The Real Cost of a Hermit Crab Souvenir

The hermit crab inside this enclosure could have lived up to 30 years, but now, he will likely survive less than one. He will sit on a kitchen counter, receiving morsels of chemical-laden commercial food and a dribble of water as often as his human caretakers remember.

Soon, he will struggle to breathe because his modified gills require tropics-level humidity, an amenity that is severely lacking in most of American suburbia as summer sizzles out into autumn. He may have an itch to grow, to shed his exoskeleton the way we disregard ill-fitting clothing to Goodwill, but alas, it won’t budge. Without the ability to burrow into moist, protective substrate, his natural growth processes will simply stop. Constricted by his exoskeleton and facing imminent suffocation, he will soon perish the way hundreds of thousands of his kind have before him.

Hermits are Wild Animals Too

Hermit crabs are wild animals who thrive on tropical coastlines in colonies, often sleeping stacked on top of one another and even collaborating to trade homes or reach a food source. According to recent research, when faced with a difficult choice — to withstand a painful shock or to abandon their crucial protective shell in order to escape the pain — these sensitive crustaceans appear to weigh their options, taking into account the value of the shell in their ultimate decision.

Despite these advanced attributes, hermit crabs for decades have been reduced to tiny trinkets, plucked from their habitat by the thousands, violently shoved into poisonous painted shells, and put on display for the masses to cart home, dooming them to an abbreviated existence.

As land hermit crabs cannot viably reproduce in captivity’s suboptimal conditions, this industry relies on the wild crab population season after season to fill its cages. Captive crabs, of course, require an assortment of various shells to inhabit, the way that girl all of us knew in high school filled her closet with shoes from glittery flip flops to stilettos, except in this case, it’s vital for survival.

The collection of these shells for captive crabs contributes to what’s been dubbed the “hermit crab housing crisis”: at any given time, 30 percent of wild hermit crabs inhabit shells that are just too small because of lack of availability (read: the previous owners must have vacated — died — for the shell to go on the market).

It’s almost as simple as teaching math to an elementary school student: if there are 10 shells to go around and 8 hermit crabs to fill them, all’s more or less right with the world. But once we pluck 5 shells from the mix for our caged hermit crab at home (or our own personal shell collection), 3 wild crabs must think outside the box. I hear old bottle fragments are all the rage these days for those unfortunate individuals. Finally, a win for ocean trash? If only these makeshift “shells” provided adequate shelter.

What You Can Do

There’s a simple solution: we must stop buying these peculiar, intelligent sea creatures and urge stores to shut their doors on the hermit crab trade for good.

If you have hermit crabs, it’s your responsibility to learn about their needs, like high humidity and temperature, deep substrate for molting, unpainted shells, and de-chlorinated fresh and salt water. A captive crab should never be released to fend for himself in the wild, as the chances of finding the perfect mix of conditions in a prime location are next to nil.

But we can strive to give these unlucky critters the best fighting chance, and you can learn how to at www.PlightoftheHermies.org.

Image source: Plight of the Hermies

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24 comments on “The Plight of the Hermit Crabs”

Click to add comment
Cyd Abner
3 Years Ago

I had a couple many years ago. Had I known this, they would've remained free!

Kyle Dodd
3 Years Ago


Wendy Nomel
3 Years Ago


Adriana Arias O
3 Years Ago


Kirsten Lassen-Smith
3 Years Ago

Don't cage'em in!

Amanda Digney
3 Years Ago

Don't keep them then !

Janine Harron
29 May 2014

I'm pretty sure releasing all the ones that are kept as pets wouldn't survive if released.

Walter G Dempsey Jr
3 Years Ago

Leave em in there wild habitat

Mary Moger Bordeaux
3 Years Ago

I know it is, but what of the ones already captured? Should they go to a good loving home, like Janine Harron has provided, or just let them die to make a point. Or rescue them all, return them to the wild, where they will surely die. Public awareness as to how these poor little guys suffer in captivity is the only way to cut down the demand. But I applaud people like Janine, who have purchased, researched on the needed care of the little guys, and provide them with the best possible life they can have.

03 Jun 2014

Thank you for commenting! As you can see in the conclusion of my piece, I urge people not to return hermit crabs to the wild - they could die if not re-introduced in optimum conditions and even then can pose a threat to wildlife. The best thing to do for captive crabs is to learn about proper care and do the best you can to give them the most fulfilling captive life possible. Read more at my website, www.plightofthehermies.org.

Jean Bosson
3 Years Ago

Janine Harron I hate to point out the obvious but if people stripped buying the crabs the pet shops wouldn't carry them. Them those little crabs could live out their lives where they where meant to....in the water.

Janine Harron
29 May 2014

Totally understand that, the first 2 crabs were given to my daughter as a present with a crappy little plastic tank the size of a shoe box, my daughter did some research on the living conditions that they like and then we purchased the larger tank and more crabs. I admit in hindsight I should of done more research but didn't. I am a person who volunteers heavily in rescue and avoids pet shops that sells live animals, so I should of known better. But they live a much better life with us than they would of with most others and doubt they would survive long if put back in the wild.

Norma Jean Dorey
3 Years Ago

I've had mine for over a year!


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