Ghost Crabs: A Halloween Special

Some might say ghosts are a bit spooky. I’d say they’re downright adorable.

The first ghost story I ever heard was, surprise-surprise, about a ghost. Therefore, the first Halloween monster I ever heard about was a ghost.

Therefore, I thought it would be appropriate for my first Halloween blog to be about a ghost.

A real ghost.

A crab ghost.

Let me introduce you to the ghost crab, one of my all-time favorite arthropods. These ghoulish crabs are big, white crustaceans that haunt the beaches of the Atlantic coast nightly. I always spend at least one night of my family’s annual beach vacation roaming the beach with either my brother, my dad, some cousins or a whole posse armed with flashlights in search of the summertime specters.

When I say that the beaches are haunted by ghost crabs every night, I really ought to say infested – I have yet to walk down Garden City Beach at night without confronting at least one every five minutes. Half of the time they’ll run away when the flashlight beam hits them, their many legs dancing so fast towards the water, their hole, or further into the dunes they put sandpiper feet to shame. The other half will sit still, faking bravery until you’re standing right in front of them. But every now and then, you’ll get a rogue crab that runs right towards you, cackling as it chases you down the beach!

Just kidding, ghost crabs don’t cackle. But they still might chase you down the beach.

Despite the eerie name and the occasional chaser, ghost crabs aren’t really that scary at all. They’re more tan than ghostly white, and they don’t only come out at night. In fact, the first time I ever saw a ghost crab was in the carport under our beach house in the late morning or early afternoon.

My second ghost crab sighting was from the aerial perspective of an older cousin’s shoulders as a herd of us ran screaming down the beach being pursued by a horde of angry crabs – that, or we thought we were being chased as unsuspecting crabs suddenly appeared in our flashlight beams and bolted away from our human stampede. One of the above.

Besides the nostalgic memories, one reason I love ghost crabs so much is that they look more like caricatures than real crabs, with their big, stalk eyes and long legs that dwarf their bodies by comparison. The hilariousness that is a ghost crab running just adds to the effect – their legs move so fast it looks like the body is just flying down the beach with a little white skirt beneath it. The ghost crab subfamily got the name Ocypodinae (“swift-footed”) for a good reason.

While ghost crabs wouldn’t really be considered monsters by most people, they’re quite scary to a plethora of nonhuman beachgoers. Aside from plant material, these omnivorous crustaceans feast on mollusks, insects, and other shoreline animals. They even dine on baby sea turtles – not cool ghost crabs, not cool.

Of course, ghost crabs have reason to be cautious themselves when basking on the sand, as they’re prey to larger animals such as raccoons and shorebirds. Preferring more to flee than to fight, our ghoulish crustaceans are much more likely to run or hide than try and take on a predator with their pincers. Even their mating rituals are relatively noncombative, as male competitions to impress females mostly just consist of the crabs sizing one another up and only coming to blows if the smaller crab doesn’t back down. This is all fine by me, because I’ve almost stepped on ghost crabs more times than I can count, and I’m really happy they’ve always decided to move out from under my foot rather than brace for it with claws outstretched.

Although they’re typically sand-dwelling crustaceans, ghost crabs actually breathe through their gills. Most of the time they can survive by using their hairy legs to flick moisture from the sand to their gills, but sometimes they have to run down to the surf from some additional oxygen. The only other instances when a ghost crab will go to the water are when it’s laying its eggs or running from me if I’m chasing it with a flashlight.

It’s not that I’m trying to be mean to the crabs – I just want to see them up close and they would rather maintain social-distancing. Someone tell these crabs they can’t catch the coronavirus so they’ll let me admire them!

A fun way to tell how old a ghost crab is would be to look at where its home is located: the older the crab, the farther away its burrow will be from the ocean. But whatever its proximity to the water, please don’t intentionally fill in a crab’s hole when you’re walking down the beach – especially during the winter. Most of the time a crab relies on its burrow to avoid the sun and hide from predators, but when it gets cold out ghost crabs actually hibernate. Although these burrows can be surprisingly deep, you still don’t want to risk the chance of dumping sand on a sleeping crab’s head.

Do crabs have heads? I guess their body and head are kind of the same thing… just don’t go around dumping sand on crabs, whatever their anatomical features are. It’s not nice.

If you’re feeling brave this Halloween season, grab some friends and trek down to the beach under the light of the full moon. Gather your courage and click on your flashlights – you may see something white and eerie dashing across the sand. These arthropodan spooks mean you no harm and may allow you to get close enough for a crustacean selfie if you’re more patient than I am – but be warned, these skittish crabs may dart away at the slightest provocation and disappear into the midnight surf, never to be seen again!

Or I mean, they could pinch you, too. It’s probably not the best idea to get in the personal space of a terror of the night, no matter how goofy it appears.

Happy Halloween everyone! May your night be filled with the creepiest of crawlies – most of whom aren’t very creepy at all.

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