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Bug Week

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Atlantic Ghost Crab

Is a crab a bug? Well, crabs are arthropods, just like insects and spiders and roly-polys (polies?).

Some crabs even dwell on land.

The Atlantic ghost crab, Ocypode quadrata, lives in burrows it excavates deep into sand dunes lining the Atlantic shore. If you’ve ever been to, say, Crescent Beach or Daytona Beach, you’ve probably seen one.

These crabs generally avoid the water.

For many beachgoers, contact with the ghost crab is limited to brief sightings as a crab cautiously leaves its burrow, or darts back in.

The crab’s rapid movement, plus the fact that its beige coloration blends in with dry beach sand, can make it almost invisible. People may only get a glimpse of sudden motion, and maybe the image of those black eyes on stalks.

A BugWeek@UF staffer once had an up-close look at a ghost crab. It was a painful experience, as he recalled here:

“My family was out at St. Augustine Beach in the late afternoon. Three of us — me, my wife and my son, who was nine years old then. My son and I were walking along the shore, and he really wanted to catch a ghost crab. And I figured that would be impossible — the moment you get within 20 feet of one, it runs right back into its hole. And you could never dig one out — we’ve tried. Those burrows go a long way down.

But we brought along some fishing line and a few cooked shrimp, to use as bait and try to lure a ghost crab out of its burrow.

First, we tried tying a chunk of shrimp to the fishing line and dangling it down a crab hole. No luck. Then, we left a couple of shrimp right outside crab holes, hoping to lure crabs out so that we could find them later on, vulnerable and distracted. Again, no immediate response from the crabs.

Eventually we got impatient and tried to dig a ghost crab out of a randomly chosen burrow. Nada.

After 30 minutes I declared that we needed to head back to the car. The tide was coming in and there was less and less dry beach.

On the way back, I looked down at the muddy sand just in front of my feet. And I saw the strangest outline. It had the general shape of a flattened toy football and it stuck up just a little bit out of the sand.

Then I saw two black eyes on stalks pop up and I realized it was a ghost crab. Either it went into the water deliberately and had settled into the wet sand at the bottom, or it had been beneath the surface since low tide and now the incoming waves had uncovered it.

After a frenzied chase, I managed to pin down the feisty creature and offer it a sweat sock to pinch with its readied claws. The crab obliged and I carried it down the beach, just by holding another part of the sock.

I was amazed. My son was amazed. We showed the crab to people we passed. They were amazed, or put off.

By the way, ghost crabs are much hairier up close than they appear to be in most photos.

Finally, we reached the area where my wife had set up our umbrella and chairs and such. She was amazed, but also a little worried about the crab’s well-being.

My son was talking about bringing the crab home and keeping it as a pet.

That would never work, I said. This crab needs a big area so he can dig a deep burrow.

Somewhere along the line the crab got loose and skittered around in a playground area that was right next to our beach base camp.

After another merry chase, I got the crab to pinch the sock again.

That worked for a short time, then the crab seemingly wised up, and dropped the lifeless sock.

At this point I was also holding the crab by its back end. You could practically see a light bulb light up over the crab’s head as it reached back with one claw and pinched down on the tip of my right index finger.

Take it from me — ghost crabs are stronger than they look.

I let go, leaving the crab dangling from my finger, held firmly in place by that one infernal claw.

Fighting back the urge to dash the crab against the nearest solid object, I crouched down, put the crab on the pavement and backed away as much as I could, leaving my arm extended.

I thought that this would make me look less threatening and the crab would let go and flee.

Nothing happened.

Nothing happened.

My wife and son stood by, horrified by the fiendish patience of the crab. We had time to talk. Being pinched by a crab does bring clarity of thought. Somewhere in there, we decided that we should take pictures, since my wife had a cell phone camera.

We took some pictures.

Nothing happened.

Finally, after what seemed like several minutes, I raised myself up a bit, which caused the crab to pinch even harder, and caused me to involuntarily lift my hand.

Miraculously, the leverage was in my favor and my finger popped free of the crab’s grip. He ran off and buried himself in a dune, eyes protruding up through the sand.

My son still wanted to dig the crab up and take him home.

No, I said. We can’t take the crab, but thanks to the crab I’ll be leaving a little piece of me here at St. Augustine Beach.

I didn’t really say that, of course. I said things like ‘stupid pinchin’ no good stupid crab’ over and over again.

And here’s the epilogue — the wound bled freely after the crab let go, but stopped immediately after I rinsed it off. And within a couple of days it was completely healed. It wasn’t a huge wound — maybe a quarter-inch long — but that’s still one of the fastest-healing wounds I’ve ever had.”

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