Cloudy with a Chance of Hermit Crabs

On a rainy evening this spring, the Boston Celtics and hermit crabs had a serendipitous encounter. Now, hear me out. I know you think that sentence sounds ridiculous, and I completely agree. However, I do have a point to all this, and I will get to it eventually, but first, let me take you on a journey that I went on a little while ago.

It all started with back-to-back overtime losses for the Celtics in March. If, like me, you are a Celtics fan, you just let out a sigh! You know the losses that I am talking about. So, it is very understandable that my mind drifted to those losses as I was sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the Tappan Zee Bridge in New York State and not moving an inch. Neither Jose Gonzalez nor Kodaline, my two favorite artists, placated me, so I switched to my next option- Radiolab.

Since I felt a little crabby, I figured I would listen to the podcast episode “Crabs All the Way Down.” And like many Radiolab episodes, this one did not disappoint. Within the first 5 minutes, I had multiple TIL moments (aka. Today I Learned). I will give you one right now. Did you know that (nearly) all hermit crabs you have encountered on boardwalks were captured from the wild because it is apparently impossible to figure out how to mass-breed them in captivity? Yeah, neither did I. As you can tell, this episode had me hooked. Not even this guy, Dr. Chris Tudge, who had spent years studying the reproductive biology of these somewhat adorable creatures, had an answer. Answers remained elusive until artist Mary Akers came along. And this is where our journey begins.

After her last kid moved out of the house, Mary, like many parents, experienced “empty nest syndrome.” Spoiler alert- a pet hermit crab filled the void in Mary’s life. It was offloaded onto her by a friend, and as the new owner of the tiny creature, Mary’s first plan of action was to figure out how to care for hermit crabs. She was heartbroken when she found out where all the hermit crabs came from but was fascinated to learn that they could live for decades if you sprinkled them with love and care. And so, she decided to buy more hermit crabs and form a “crabitat” in her daughter’s bedroom.

Mary named the crabs, brought them shells, fed them, observed them every day, and spent a significant amount of time with them, so much so that she noticed one of them walking funnily one day, only to discover that her hermit crab was carrying eggs. She built multiple pools for the pregnant crab to choose where to lay her eggs, and once the eggs hatched, she used a turkey baster to replace the dirty water, and at this point, you would think, YAY! Right? Hermit crab lays eggs, eggs hatch, hermit crab babies grow up, ergo, more hermit crabs. Wrong!

Unfortunately, after a while, all the newly hatched hermit crabs died, and no matter what Mary did, they did not survive. Mary was understandably devastated but was determined to care for those tiny crabs, so the following summer, when one of her crabs was carrying eggs, she decided to build a different kind of tank, grew another type of seaweed, and also built a ramp to mimic a hermit crab’s journey from the ocean to the land. And then Mary did the unthinkable, “she decided to not only stop caring as much but to also become the ocean.” I pulled that phrase from the podcast because there is no other way to describe what she did, and it was powerful how she phrased it during the episode. Mary stopped treating the tiny crabs like delicate creatures and instead chose to simulate what they would experience in their natural habitat. She became the ocean.

She agitated the tank, mimicked those rough tides, and slowly, one day, she saw a tiny hermit crab cross that line from the ocean onto the land. Mary had succeeded- she added over 200 hermit crabs to the world that summer. She succeeded when scientists who studied this creature for a living failed. Dr. Tudge, a leading expert in all things hermit crabs, was naturally awestruck by what Mary had achieved. And it all comes back to that phrase- she became the ocean. It was more than just rocking the tank back and forth. The water had to be changed, and oxygen levels had to be maintained, etc. But Mary figured that out. Armed with nothing but a turkey baster and absurd levels of determination, this artist, and a loving mom of three, achieved the impossible. She had successfully mass-bred hundreds of hermit crabs.

One look at Mary’s blog will tell you the hours spent observing, recording, detailing, figuring out alternatives, and, most of all, the care involved in this process. If you work in a lab, it will remind you of your countless failed experiments and detailed lab notebooks, the seemingly unimportant things written down with the hope of finding that “AHA!” moment, the feeling of despair when nothing is going your way, and the urge to give up. Most of all, it will remind you that sometimes, when things seem dire, it is okay not to care. The point of all this was not to convince you to mass-breed hermit crabs but to remind you that while science is fraught with failures, science is for everyone. There is a scientist inside all of us, and you do not need a PhD to be a scientist. Be meticulous and persevere like Mary, and you will succeed. But most of all, be curious!

I will now sign off with this AI-generated image of a hermit crab wearing a Boston Celtics jersey (or at least what my friend’s bot thinks it would look like).

Translate »
%d bloggers like this: