Everything I’ve learned about hermit crabs

One day last year, my son came home from school and said he’d had a relief teacher who had told the class all about her pet hermit crabs. He proceeded to tell me all about pet hermit crabs, and showed me a list he’d written down of the things you need to house pet hermit crabs. I said that was all very interesting and if he still felt strongly about the matter at his next birthday, we could get some hermit crabs to keep in his old fish tank. Months passed, his level of enthusiasm remained high, and for his birthday we took him to the pet shop to buy two hermit crabs (as they like company), and various branded hermit crab accoutrements.

Hermit crabs sold as pets in Australia are Coenobita variabilis, a native Australian land hermit crab. They live in northern tropical parts of Australia, so they like a warm habitat. Generally they’re kept in dry fish tanks, with containers of fresh water for them to drink, and salt water to splash in.

Above is a picture of our tank right after we bought the two crabs, Nippy and Scratcher. This is what tanks look like if you buy the pet shop basics – it’s a bit of a grim sight. After I took this photo, we added sticks and rocks for climbing on, and I made the bedding a bit deeper using “play sand” purchased from Bunnings. Every time we added something new to the tank, the crabs came over and thoroughly inspected it – they really enjoy exploring new additions to their environment, and it’s fun to rearrange items and occasionally add new things in to give them a bit of a thrill.

Nippy and Scratcher were fascinating little creatures, and it was really fun watching them exploring around their tank, burrowing in the sand and climbing out precariously on sticks. However, about a month after we got them, I inspected the tank and made a rather horrifying discovery – a lone crab leg was lying on the sand and Nippy was wandering around the tank looking suspiciously well and happy. I felt that ominous sinking sensation that occurs when you realise you’re going to have to tell your child that one of their pets has died. I poked around in the sand, uncovering a mostly empty shell with the remainder of Scratcher in it, and tried to think about the nicest way to tell Edward “I think one of your crabs ate the other one.”

If you google “why did my hermit crab die”, you get any number of results assuring you that your hermit crab is probably not dead, it’s just moulting, as moulting hermit crabs don’t move and appear to be dead. You should never on any account actually inspect your hermit crab to check if it’s dead, the websites said sternly, because you might hurt it. Does anything smell like it’s rotting? No? Well your hermit crab is probably just fine, and you should treat it as if it’s still alive. I decided a dismembered leg was good enough evidence that Scratcher was no longer alive, and removed the remnants of his corpse from the tank.

I broke the news of Scratcher’s death, and spent a few days doing a lot more reading about hermit crabs and all the ways they can die. I decided I’d done two things wrong that probably led to Scratcher’s untimely death. Firstly, hermit crabs can only breathe in high humidity – that’s part of the reason why they need dishes of water and a heat pad under their tank. We didn’t have any indicator of the humidity level in the tank, hadn’t been spraying it with water, and it’d been winter (albeit a sub-tropical winter). It was possible the humidity in the tank had been too low. Secondly, when hermit crabs moult they can’t move (hence the whole “are they dead/are they alive” dilemma that hermit crab owners face) and are unable to defend themselves – they bury themselves to protect themselves during the moulting process. While I’d added enough substrate for the crabs to fully cover themselves, it wouldn’t have been enough to defend Scratcher from a curious Nippy.

A possible thirdly was the fact that the branded crab accessories we had were all peeling – the brightly coloured shells and water containers were shedding paint, and I wondered if this might have been poisonous if ingested. I don’t think this is actually the case, however in future I avoided brightly painted accessories and shells to avoid more peeling paint.

Back to the drawing board for the tank (or “crabitat” as hermit crab owners very cutely call it). I made a much deeper substrate/bedding area, coming about a third of the way up the tank – this is a combination of the “play sand” and coconut coir. Bunnings (and other gardening stores) stock bricks of pure coconut coir – both this and the sand are much more cost effective than the tiny bags of “hermit crab bedding” sold at pet shops. You just need to ensure that you are buying pure coconut coir with no added fertiliser. (Bunnings sell bricks labelled as “garden soil”, which are fine to use – the bricks labelled “feed and mulch” have additives.) I broke off part of the block of coconut coir, soak it in water, then mixed it with the sand until I had a nice consistency – around 2/3 sand and 1/3 coir.

On top of the bedding, I put some new netting for climbing, a coconut shell house for hiding in, some more spare shells (unpainted ones this time), two gauges for temperature and humidity, and finally – and a new crab, Outy. A bit later, I put up a “moss pit” – this is a suction cup soap holder stuck to the tank, and filled with sphagnum moss (you can buy blocks of this at gardening shops). Nippy and Outy were thrilled with their new tank decor and had a lovely time thoroughly exploring, and hurling moss about the tank. (Well I presume that’s what they were doing at night when I’d find the moss pit emptied in the morning, and moss strewn around everywhere).

Everything went well for a couple of weeks, and then first Nippy, then Outy, disappeared. I confidently announced that they were taking advantage of their lovely deep substrate and were moulting. I kept changing the water and food, awaiting their return. After a couple of weeks, Outy reemerged for a few days, then disappeared again. More weeks went by. “They’re not very interesting pets, are they?” my brother commented, surveying the empty tank. I became convinced that both crabs were dead – around two months had passed since I’d seen Nippy, and there were no signs of life. Refreshing the water bowls began to feel like a bit of a pointless endeavour.

As the end of the year approached, I told Edward that after Christmas we should probably have a dig around to try and find the crabs, as I suspected they might be dead. He solemnly agreed. Nippy and Outy were apparently listening to me, and accordingly on Boxing Day they triumphantly re-emerged, back from the dead, clambering around the tank as if nothing had happened.

I am hoping that soon they may like to shift out of their garish painted and branded shells and move into some of the slightly larger natural shells scattered temptingly around their tank. It is nice to have them back from their long absence, and according to The Internet, they will probably not moult again for at least another year. Soon we shall rearrange their tank to keep their minds – although surely hermit crabs must have rather small brains – happily occupied with interesting new things.


One of the chooks has gone broody. On the weekend she was determinedly sitting on the eggs she and her fellow denizons of Chickendome had laid that morning, and stayed there rather than adventuring out in the garden with the others when I opened the door to the pen. A fairly pointless endeavour, given that we don’t have a rooster. I left her there for a bit, then went and lifted her out of the nesting box and removed the eggs. She stomped outside in a bit of a huff, then started scratching around and went and joined her fellows. Later in the day however she’d left them and returned inside to the nesting box, this time carefully incubating some straw.

I’m not sure how to cure her of this habit, apart from hauling her off the nest every so often and hoping that she realises that no matter how dedicated she is to sitting in one position, she’s not going to get chickens out of it.

It’s raining heavily and relentessly today and I always worry about the chooks in this sort of weather. Half their pen remains dry, but it’s not much space to scratch around in and I imagine them being rather bored during the day, staring dolefully at the pouring rain and watching the rest of their pen turn to mud.


There seems to be a basic instinct in all young children who visit our house to make high pitched screeching noises and run after the cats, who roll their eyes and belt in the opposite direction. Ella was a bit shy when she came to visit us last weekend in our unfamiliar house, but that didn’t stop her from engaging in a bit of cat chasing.

Each time we have children come to stay I realise how very un-child proof our house is. It felt terribly unfair to constantly tell Ella not to do things, so on Sunday morning Naomi and I lolled around on the couch and watched Ella methodically pull books off the bookshelves and hand them to us triumphantly. I took the opportunity to re-alphabetise my fiction, which might seem like a pointless sort of thing to do, but when you have a lot of books and your husband is moping around the living room asking for something to read, it makes it easier to locate one of the two or three authors he likes to read.

Ella also quite liked the chooks, who followed her around as she toddled about in her very tough little bare feet. I feel that I’ve done a good job socialising these chooks – they follow me around the garden, put themselves away at night, and lay lots of eggs. I have been rewarding them with rotten strawberries. Best chook parent ever, that’s me.


The chooks thought long and hard about the best way to begin the Easter weekend, and thought it was an appropriate time to start laying eggs. They’re very witty, our chooks. And aren’t they the most beautiful eggs you’ve ever seen? Speaking objectively?

We ate some of them for breakfast, and they were delicious, with vivid orange yolks. And the largest egg was a double-yolker – proof of chooky happiness, I think. They’re pretty easy creatures to content – some feed and water, some vegie scraps, some straw to hurl around and space to explore – and the occasional handful of sunflower seeds to completely blow their minds with delight.

Chooks at large

After 4 weeks of the chooks living in Chickendome, I thought they were ready to be let out for the day. I wanted them to be familiar enough with their Chickendome that they didn’t wander too far away from it, and weren’t reluctant to be locked back in at night. It all went very well – they were delighted to be given free reign of the garden, but mostly did circuits of the house, grubbing around in the gardens and looking very much like their jungle fowl ancestors (particularly when they were wading through some very tall weeds). Towards the end of each day they gravitated back to Chickendome, either heading inside themselves or hanging around next to it waiting for me to tempt them with sunflower seeds (which they adore).

It’s lovely heading out to hang out the washing, and suddenly having an audience of four chooks who have wandered over to see what you’re doing. I really like hearing their rustlings and scratchings outside, and their burring murmerings to each other. They haven’t started laying yet, but I think they were a little young when we got them. We’re happily anticipating our first eggs. We’ll have some friends spending a few nights with us in a couple of weeks, and I am secretly hoping to feed them some home grown eggs. Hear that, chookies? You’re eating plenty of laying mash – put some of it to use, there’s my good girls.

New residents

Chickendome is finally completed and inhabited by four red point of lay chooks I picked up at the produce store today, where they were loaded into the car for me, and I was offered a cuppa. I like the produce store.

The chooks spent some time in their box when we put them in Chickendome, before venturing out, checking out their water and food supplies, and starting to scratch and peck around. They seem to be enjoying themselves. I’m going to leave them locked in for about two weeks or so before letting them out on weekends to have a bit of a roam around the property. Now we’ll just need to wait for them to settle in and grow up a little before we start getting eggs.

In his own hunt for domestication genes, Andersson is taking a close look at the most populous domesticated animal on Earth: the chicken. Their ancestors, red jungle fowl, roamed freely in the jungles of India, Nepal, and other parts of South and Southeast Asia. Somewhere around 8,000 years ago, humans started breeding them for food. Last year Andersson and his colleagues compared the full genomes of domesticated chickens with those of zoo-based populations of red jungle fowl. They identified a mutation, in a gene known as TSHR, that was found only in domestic populations. The implication is that TSHR thereby played some role in domestication, and now the team is working to determine exactly what the TSHR mutation controls. Andersson hypothesizes that it could play a role in the birds’ reproductive cycles, allowing chickens to breed more frequently in captivity than red jungle fowl do in the wild—a trait early farmers would have been eager to perpetuate. The same difference exists between wolves, which reproduce once a year and in the same season, and dogs, which can breed multiple times a year, in any season.
(from Animal Domestication: Taming the Wild, in National Geographic)

The husband keeps pointing out that Chickendome is not actually a dome – I think he would have preferred it if we had built this geodesic dome chook pen, as at least the name would have been more accurate.

In a few years I’d like to experiment with getting some different chook breeds, and perhaps a rooster. This post on how to choose chooks is interesting – chooks that lay blue eggs sound like fun.

Lady pigs

Me: “Those little horses look like they’re dead when they lie down like that. But I don’t think they can be, because there’s always a couple of them lying down whenever we go past.”
Husband: “Would you like a little horse?”
Me: “No – I would like a pig.”
H: “We could get a pig.”
Me: “What would we do with it? Would we eat it? I like bacon.”
H: “No.”
Me: “Well, I don’t know what the point is. You can’t really cuddle a pig, or take it for walks.”
H: “You can cuddle a pig.”
Me: “I’ll leave the pig cuddling to you. I guess you could get a stud pig. And hire it out to people with lady pigs.”
H: “Lady pigs? I don’t think they’re called lady pigs.”1
Me (ignoring the interruption): “And you could advertise – ‘Stud pig – handsome, non-smoker, likes walks on the beach – for impregnating lady pigs. Please call.’ Do you think a stud pig would get frustrated with no lady pigs around?”
H: “I think I would like to end this conversation now.”

1. Sow! Not lady pig. But I think I prefer lady pig.


Gonzo the puppy came to the choir spring picnic on the weekend, played with his cow toy in the corner and was cruelly prevented from eating an illicit sausage passed to him by a couple of children who were being particularly generous with their lunch.

The choir I’ve been singing with for the past few weeks has worked out really well – conveniently close to home, and a repertoire I enjoy. I have really missed group singing, which I haven’t done since University. And I haven’t been a student for quite a long time now. Alas. Although it’s not really the studenty bit of being a student I miss but rather the great swathes of free time I didn’t properly appreciate.


Could Horace’s life be more exhausting? Constantly expected to loll around, having his picture taken, his ears scratched, his every mew attended to – a cat can only put up with so much.

Now that winter is here (particularly with the last week of particularly chilly temperatures), the cats have been bulking up fur-wise, and are both sporting impressive manes. And I’m sure they will miss us terribly when we’re away on holidays in a few weeks. We have informed our house-sitter that when Horace bites you on the face affectionately in the wee hours of the morning, it’s because he wants you to let him under the blanket. I’m not sure it’s going to go over so well with people who aren’t his indulgent cat-parents.


Our cats are strictly indoor cats for several reasons. Partly because despite them being the sookiest cats in the universe, I don’t want them wreaking havoc amongst the bird/lizard/small mammal population around the house (which is quite a wide and varied population, given that we live in the middle of the bush). Partly because I don’t want them wandering into other people’s properties because god, it used to drive me crazy in suburbia when people’s beloved pets (supposedly) would wander through my yard and shit in my pot plants. Partly because I would worry about them outside on their own (because there might be people like me out there who would plot to poison them. Not that I’ve actually poisoned anyone’s cat. But I’ve thought about it.)

So, between the walls of the house is their familiar world, and they sit at the doors and watch the outside goings on. Sometimes we put their harnesses on and take them outside on a lead, which does look utterly ridiculous. I have discovered (in the most unsurprising discovery of all time) that you can’t walk a cat like you can a dog – the cats just wander about on the ends of the leads, tugging you where they want to go. They do enjoy having the grass under their paws and spend a great deal of time sniffing intently at things. A few weeks ago Horace got startled by a noise, broke out of his harness and raced away. I panicked for a moment, but then realised he was heading back to the house, where he pawed at the door trying to get away from the unpredictable outside. He pretends to look like a minature lion, but really he prefers to spend his afternoons napping inside the linen closet.