Christmas Island: Where crabs climb trees to get nuts
The coconut crab, Birgus latro, is a species of terrestrial hermit crab, also known as the robber crab or palm thief. It is the largest land-living arthropod in the world, and is probably at the upper size limit of terrestrial animals with exoskeletons in today’s atmosphere at a weight of up to 4.1 kg (9.0 lb).
It is found on islands across the Indian Ocean and parts of the Pacific Ocean as far east as the Gambier Islands, mirroring the distribution of the coconut palm; it has been extirpated from most areas with a significant human population, including mainland Australia and Madagascar.
The total lifespan of a coconut crab may be over 60 years, when they reach their maximum size.
The species is popularly associated with the coconut, and has been widely reported to climb trees to pick coconuts, which it then opens to eat the flesh. While coconut crabs can climb trees, and can eventually open a coconut collectively, coconuts are not a significant part of their diet.
Coconut crabs are hunted wherever they come into contact with humans, and are subject to legal protection in some areas.
They have been observed to prey upon crabs like Gecarcoidea natalis and Discoplax hirtipes, as well as scavenge on the carcasses of other coconut crabs. During a tagging experiment, one coconut crab was observed catching and eating a Polynesian Rat (Rattus exulans).
Coconut crabs may be responsible for the disappearance of Amelia Earhart‘s remains, consuming them after her death and hoarding her bones in their burrows.
It is a common perception that the coconut crab cuts the coconuts from the tree to eat them on the ground. The coconut crab can take a coconut from the ground and cut it to a husk nut, take it with its claw, climb up a tree 10 m (33 ft) high and drop the husk nut, to access the content inside.
They often descend from the trees by falling, and can survive a fall of at least 4.5 meters (15 ft) unhurt.
Coconut crabs cut holes into coconuts with their strong claws and eat the contents, although it can take several days before the coconut is opened.
Thomas Hale Streets discussed the behaviour in 1877, doubting that the animal would climb trees to get at the nuts. In the 1980s, Holger Rumpff was able to confirm Streets’s report, observing and studying how they open coconuts in the wild. The animal has developed a special technique to do so: if the coconut is still covered with husk, it will use its claws to rip off strips, always starting from the side with the three germination pores, the group of three small circles found on the outside of the coconut. Once the pores are visible, the coconut crab will bang its pincers on one of them until they break. Afterwards, it will turn around and use the smaller pincers on its other legs to pull out the white flesh of the coconut. Using their strong claws, larger individuals can even break the hard coconut into smaller pieces for easier consumption.
While the coconut crab itself is not innately poisonous, it may become so depending on its diet, and cases of coconut crab poisoning have occurred. For instance, consumption of the sea mango Cerbera manghas by the coconut crab may make the coconut crab toxic due to the presence of cardiac cardenolides.
Should a coconut crab pinch a person, it will cause pain and be unlikely to release its grip. Thomas Hale Streets reports a trick used by Micronesians of the Line Islands to get a coconut crab to loosen its grip: “It may be interesting to know that in such a dilemma a gentle titillation of the under soft parts of the body with any light material will cause the crab to loosen its hold.”
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