The Semester I Got Crabs

Shannon is a student who participated in my blogging workshop as part of her Science and Nature Writing class earlier this semester. He she recounts her experience conducting independent research at the Duke University Marine Lab.

This past semester I was simply enjoying my life and doing what college students do when it happened: I got crabs. Sixty-four of them, to be exact. Never before had I experienced such prolonged irritation; before long I was just itching to get rid of them. For weeks I was sure that I had made a foolish mistake, vowing to be more careful in the future. Now, I’m not talking about Pthirus pubis, the sexually transmitted disease—get your mind out of the gutter! The crabs I’m referring to are Clibanarius vitattus, the striped hermit crabs that haunted my dreams and terrorized my every waking moment for the duration of my first ever independent study experiment.

My nightmare started off as a dreamy vision, a romanticized fantasy of the scientific process brought on by my naivety as an inexperienced undergraduate student. The parameters of my project were to test the rheotaxis and scototaxis of Clibanarius vittatus in order to study their chemical cue preferences, their visual orientation in the presence of chemical cues, and correlations between shell fit and cue preference. So, basically I was going to put striped hermit crabs in the middle of a big “x” and see which way they crawled. My plan was simple: Pick up crabs. Play with crabs. Get results. Get published. With any luck, I would have my project nicely wrapped up with a few days to spare for lying at the beach in a state of comatose relaxation.

Here’s what really happened. For the three week duration I spent, on average, ten hours a day closeted in the confines of a dingy little room that a friend said “smelled of death” before getting the hell out of there. For most of this period my only communication with other life forms was when I muttered guilty commiserations to my crustacean companions who did, in fact, begin to smell odious as the days progressed. At first I saw them as my torturers, stubbornly refusing to respond when I placed them in the apparatus or responding in ways that just didn’t make sense. Before long, however, I realized that I was their begrudging torturer. Though their brains are just little clusters of neurons, I couldn’t help but feel a tad remorseful.

The worst was when I had to remove them from their shells to measure their volumes; this was done by placing the tip of a hot soldering iron on one end of the shell and waiting for the crab to (hypothetically) evacuate. Some of the crabs were quite content with their shells— so content that they would simply sit there as they began to bubble and smell like bad seafood. Others did evacuate, and I would look with guilty fascination at their pale, squishy, vulnerable little bodies.  I was something akin to a crazy cat lady: the crazy crab girl who hoarded dozens of little invertebrates and looked pleadingly into the googly eyes atop their eyestalks, murmuring sweet nothings. “Come on now, you can do it little guy! Go to the algae cue, that’s it…no, no, not the predator cue!” They would do that a lot: respond to the chemical extracted from the big old blue crab, Callinectes sapidus, which lives in the water wing. My professor grew fond of joking that they were suicidal; I’m not convinced that this explanation should be ruled out. My own situation was bad enough, but if I were kept in a little plastic cup without food (it would contaminate the cues) and some scary blonde monster kept putting me in water that smelled like nasty dead things, I, too, might consider offing myself.

Somehow I survived my experience, streaming Pandora music and episodes of South Park to get me through my darkest hours. I rinsed away the last of my chemical cues, stepped out of my crab cave into the light of day, and dumped the surviving Clibanarius vitattus unceremoniously over the sea wall.  At long last, I was cured of my crabs.  I walked away with little in the way of results, nothing in the way of publication and an aversion to seafood that, like a battle scar, would fade with time. However, I also left that smelly little room with, I can honestly say, an emphatic appreciation for the trials and tribulations of the scientific method. That, and a lingering paranoia that invertebrate kind will launch a vendetta against me to avenge their fallen brethren.


  1. Anna L · May 14, 2012

    I’m glad to read that my old project is still going strong. I lost track of how many students have tried to measure scototaxis of fiddler crabs. I’m very familiar with that room, since I spend a whole semester measuring those crabs during daylight and nightime hours. One day the crabs escaped and everyone on that floor would bring me crabs that they found crawling in different rooms. Did they finally put the vents in that room, or is the only air coming from the slots in the door?

  2. Shannon K. · May 16, 2012

    Good to hear from someone else who has shared my pain! That’s awful that your crabs escaped…can’t blame them for trying, though. I don’t think there were any vents. It was a really tiny, stuffy room–glad to be outta there.

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