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Laura Beauregard, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service // Public Domain
Laura Beauregard, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service // Public Domain

10 Ginormous Facts About Coconut Crabs

Laura Beauregard, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service // Public Domain
Laura Beauregard, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service // Public Domain

It's huge, antisocial, will steal your silverware, and can rip apart whole coconuts with its claws. Grab a piña colada and enjoy these 10 ginormous facts about the amazing coconut crab.

1. THEY’RE COLOSSAL.

Native to islands in the Indian and southern Pacific oceans, these animals are truly humongous. They can weigh 9 pounds and measure 3 feet from leg to leg. Coconut crabs are the largest land-living arthropods—the phylum of joint-legged creatures that includes crabs, insects, spiders, and scorpions. Even Charles Darwin was stunned by their “monstrous size.”

But be aware: Occasionally, a viral photo circulates that exaggerates the coconut crab’s size. As biologist Michael Bok explains, the coconut crab in that infamous photo is normal sized, but the trash can is unusually small.

2. THEY’RE HERMIT CRABS.

Sandwich via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Where does such a bizarre animal fit in the animal kingdom? Are they lobsters? Tarantulas? Space aliens? In fact, Birgus latro is a kind of hermit crab.

You may have seen smaller hermit crabs on a trip to the beach—or for sale at a pet shop. They take shelter inside abandoned snail shells, carrying them around as portable homes. But if coconut crabs are hermit crabs, then why don’t they live in shells? Well, they do—when they’re young and still small.

3. THEY HULK OUT OF THEIR SHELLS.

Like other crabs, hatchling coconut crabs begin their lives floating freely at sea. After about a month of eating and growing, they find a snail shell and move in. The little coconut crabs carry this mobile home as they begin to transition to a land-based life.

A seashell is a nice, protected place to live, but it has its drawbacks. As a crab gets bigger, its shell gets tighter—like an old pair of shoes on a kid who’s growing fast. The crab needs to find a bigger shell and make a quick switch. And that larger home will be heavier to tote around.

So, after a year or so of inhabiting shells, the coconut crab makes a major lifestyle change. It crawls out and hardens the parts of its body that were once protected by the shell by regrowing layers of calcium-based tissues, a process called recalcification. Without its old home, it’s free of size constraints. Now, unlike other hermit crabs, it can become enormous.

4. COCONUT CRABS EAT COCONUTS (OF COURSE) …

This might seem obvious from the coconut crab’s name. But if you’ve ever tried to crack open a coconut, you know that it’s a steep challenge. In fact, a lengthy scientific debate once raged about whether coconut crabs were really able to open the fruit. It turns out that they’re up to the challenge—but they don’t just pop open their prize and dig in.

Breaking into a coconut is a mighty ordeal even if you’re a heavily armored crustacean the size of a small dog. Coconut crabs first use their claws to scrape away the fibrous coating. This can take hours or days. Finally, they stab into the fruit at a weak point and rip it open.

This diet helps coconut crabs grow large: those with access to coconuts may be twice as massive as those without. But eating the fruit isn’t essential for their survival. So what other items do the largest land-living arthropods shove into their maw?

5. … BUT THEY ALSO EAT DEAD ANIMALS, THEIR OWN BODY PARTS, AND EACH OTHER.

As well as the occasional biscuit, as you can see in the video above. (Note: Do not feed biscuits to coconut crabs.) A coconut crab’s diet may include other tropical fruits, fallen plant material, dead and decaying animals, rats, and other crab species. They’ll even eat members of their own kind. In fact, biologist Mark Laidre says they only relatively recently evolved to eat coconuts—a skill unique to modern coconut crabs—which helps them to eat each other less.

They also eat their own discarded body parts. As coconut crabs grow, they periodically molt their tough outer layer (the exoskeleton) and grow a new one. Once they’re done molting, which takes about a month, they gobble up their own exoskeleton.

6. THEY HAVE AN AMAZING SENSE OF SMELL …

Coconut crabs often forage at night. How do they find food when they’re wandering around in the dark? They sniff it out. These animals have a strong, highly efficient [PDF] sense of smell. In fact, a large portion of their brain is devoted to detecting odors.

7. … WHICH MIGHT EXPLAIN WHY THEY’RE THIEVES.

Coconut crabs are also known as robber crabs because they snatch silverware and other objects and carry them away. Some people have even advanced the gruesome theory that Amelia Earhart’s remains are missing because coconut crabs hauled them down into their burrows. The thievery might be tied to that incredible sense of smell. Coconut crabs ignore objects that have been washed clean of scents, suggesting that they may only abscond with things that carry a faint whiff of food.

8. THEY'RE PRETTY ANTISOCIAL.

Adult coconut crabs live alone in crevices or burrows. They aggressively guard their privacy; a crab entering another’s burrow risks becoming a meal.

But that’s not the end of their antisocial behavior. When coconut crabs emerge to feed, they keep their distance from each other. To maintain their personal space, they’ll announce their presence with ritualized claw waving. Laidre sought to find out if coconut crabs ever gathered together to interact (beyond mating or eating each other). The scientist tethered coconut crabs to one spot and watched to see if any others came to visit. They did not.

9. THEY CARRY THEIR DEVELOPING YOUNG UNDER THEIR ABDOMENS.

After coconut crabs mate, females attach their eggs to special appendages and carry them under their abdomens. While the young develop inside the eggs, the females hold onto them, sticking near the edge of the sea so that they can periodically moisten the eggs.

But this care ends when the young are ready to hatch. The females release their hatchlings into the ocean waves. Now the tiny, floating babies must fend for themselves—and only a few will survive to return to land.

10. WE NEED TO LEARN MORE ABOUT THEM.

Anne Sheppard, University of Warwick via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

Coconut crabs are little-studied creatures, and we need to know more about them—not just because they’re incredible and have a lot to tell us about biology, but also because we want to keep them around.

They may be huge and heavily armored, but they can be vulnerable. Coconut crabs take an extremely long time to grow big—they can live more than 40 years—and introduced predators such as rats can harm smaller, younger individuals or those in the process of shedding their exoskeletons (when their bodies are soft). Habitat loss has also caused local declines in some areas. The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists the coconut crab as Data Deficient: That is, we don’t know enough about its locations and populations. That’s why we need to study and learn more about these amazing, otherworldly critters.

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There May Be an Ancient Reason Why Your Dog Eats Poop
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Dogs aren't known for their picky taste in food, but some pups go beyond the normal trash hunting and start rooting around in poop, whether it be their own or a friend's. Just why dogs exhibit this behavior is a scientific mystery. Only some dogs do it, and researchers aren't quite sure where the impulse comes from. But if your dog is a poop eater, it's nearly impossible to steer them away from their favorite feces.

A new study in the journal Veterinary Medicine and Science, spotted by The Washington Post, presents a new theory for what scientists call "canine conspecific coprophagy," or dogs eating dog poop.

In online surveys about domestic dogs' poop-eating habits completed by thousands of pet owners, the researchers found no link between eating poop and a dog's sex, house training, compulsive behavior, or the style of mothering they received as puppies. However, they did find one common link between the poop eaters. Most tended to eat only poop that was less than two days old. According to their data, 85 percent of poop-eaters only go for the fresh stuff.

That timeline is important because it tracks with the lifespan of parasites. And this led the researchers to the following hypothesis: that eating poop is a holdover behavior from domestic dogs' ancestors, who may have had a decent reason to tuck into their friends' poop.

Since their poop has a high chance of containing intestinal parasites, wolves poop far from their dens. But if a sick wolf doesn't quite make it out of the den in time, they might do their business too close to home. A healthier wolf might eat this poop, but the parasite eggs wouldn't have hatched within the first day or two of the feces being dropped. Thus, the healthy wolf would carry the risk of infection away from the den, depositing the eggs they had consumed away in their own, subsequent bowel movements at an appropriate distance before the eggs had the chance to hatch into larvae and transmit the parasite to the pack.

Domestic dogs may just be enacting this behavior instinctively—only for them, there isn't as much danger of them picking up a parasite at home. However, the theory isn't foolproof. The surveys also found that so-called "greedy eaters" were more likely to eat feces than dogs who aren't quite so intense about food. So yes, it could still be about a poop-loving palate.

But really, it's much more pleasant to think about the behavior as a parasite-protection measure than our best pals foraging for a delicious fecal snack. 

[h/t The Washington Post]

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Big Questions
What Makes a Cat's Tail Puff Up When It's Scared?
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Cats wear their emotions on their tails, not their sleeves. They tap their fluffy rear appendages during relaxing naps, thrash them while tense, and hold them stiff and aloft when they’re feeling aggressive, among other behaviors. And in some scary situations (like, say, being surprised by a cucumber), a cat’s tail will actually expand, puffing up to nearly twice its volume as its owner hisses, arches its back, and flattens its ears. What does a super-sized tail signify, and how does it occur naturally without help from hairspray?

Cats with puffed tails are “basically trying to make themselves look as big as possible, and that’s because they detect a threat in the environment," Dr. Mikel Delgado, a certified cat behavior consultant who studied animal behavior and human-pet relationships as a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley, tells Mental Floss. The “threat” in question can be as major as an approaching dog or as minor as an unexpected noise. Even if a cat isn't technically in any real danger, it's still biologically wired to spring to the offensive at a moment’s notice, as it's "not quite at the top of the food chain,” Delgado says. And a big tail is reflexive feline body language for “I’m big and scary, and you wouldn't want to mess with me,” she adds.

A cat’s tail puffs when muscles in its skin (where the hair base is) contract in response to hormone signals from the stress/fight or flight system, or sympathetic nervous system. Occasionally, the hairs on a cat’s back will also puff up along with the tail. That said, not all cats swell up when a startling situation strikes. “I’ve seen some cats that seem unflappable, and they never get poofed up,” Delgado says. “My cats get puffed up pretty easily.”

In addition to cats, other animals also experience piloerection, as this phenomenon is technically called. For example, “some birds puff up when they're encountering an enemy or a threat,” Delgado says. “I think it is a universal response among animals to try to get themselves out of a [potentially dangerous] situation. Really, the idea is that you don't have to fight because if you fight, you might lose an ear or you might get an injury that could be fatal. For most animals, they’re trying to figure out how to scare another animal off without actually going fisticuffs.” In other words, hiss softly, but carry a big tail.

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