Hermit crabs are decapod crustaceans of the superfamily Paguroidea. Most of the 1100 species possess an asymmetrical abdomen which is concealed in an empty gastropod shell that is carried around by the hermit crab.
Most species have long, spirally curved abdomens, which are soft, unlike the hard, calcified abdomens seen in related crustaceans. The vulnerable abdomen is protected from predators by a salvaged empty seashell carried by the hermit crab, into which its whole body can retract. Most frequently hermit crabs use the shells of sea snails (although the shells of bivalves and scaphopods and even hollow pieces of wood and stone are used by some species). The tip of the hermit crab’s abdomen is adapted to clasp strongly onto the columella of the snail shell.
As the hermit crab grows in size, it has to find a larger shell and abandon the previous one. This habit of living in a second hand shell gives rise to the popular name “hermit crab”, by analogy to a hermit who lives alone. Several hermit crab species, both terrestrial and marine, use vacancy chains to find new shells: when a new, bigger shell becomes available, hermit crabs gather around it and form a kind of queue from largest to smallest. When the largest crab moves into the new shell, the second biggest crab moves into the newly vacated shell, thereby making its previous shell available to the third crab, and so on. Hermit crabs often “gang up” on a hermit crab that has what they perceive to be a better shell, where they will actually pry its home (shell) away from it and then compete for it, and one will ultimately take it over.
Most species are aquatic and live in varying depths of saltwater, from shallow reefs and shorelines to deep sea bottoms. Tropical areas host some terrestrial species, though even those have aquatic larvae and therefore need access to water for reproduction. Most hermit crabs are nocturnal.
A few species do not use a “mobile home” and inhabit immobile structures left by polychaete worms, vermetid gastropods, corals and sponges
Shells and shell competition
As hermit crabs grow they require larger shells. Since suitable intact gastropod shells are sometimes a limited resource, there is often vigorous competition among hermit crabs for shells. The availability of empty shells at any given place depends on the relative abundance of gastropods and hermit crabs, matched for size. An equally important issue is the population of organisms that prey upon gastropods and leave the shells intact. Hermit crabs that are kept together may fight or kill a competitor to gain access to the shell they favour. However, if the crabs vary significantly in size, the occurrence of fights over empty shells will decrease or remain non-existent.
A hermit crab with a shell that is too small cannot grow as fast as those with well-fitting shells, and is more likely to be eaten if it cannot retract completely into the shell.However, during times of molting, hermit crabs may temporarily move into a smaller shell, so that less sand comes through the opening when they bury themselves. The inverse has also been observed. Hermit crabs may move into a shell that is much too large to molt, especially if it is not able to bury itself in sand.
For some larger marine species, supporting one or more sea anemones on the shell can scare away predators. The sea anemone benefits, because it is in position to consume fragments of the hermit crab’s meals. Other very close symbiotic relationships are known from encrusting bryozoans and hermit crabs forming bryoliths