The animal on the cover of Algorithms in a Nutshell is a hermit crab (Pagurus bernhardus). More than 500 species of hermit crabs exist. Mostly aquatic, they
live in saltwater in shallow coral reefs and tide pools. Some hermit crabs,however, especially in the tropics, are terrestrial. The robber crab, which can grow as large as a coconut, is one such example. Even terrestrial hermit crabs carry a small amount of water in their shells to help them breathe and keep their abdomens
Unlike true crabs, hermit crabs do not have a hard shell of their own and must seek refuge from predators in the abandoned shells of gastropods (snails). They are particularly fond of the discarded shells of periwinkles and whelks. As they grow bigger, they have to find a new shell to inhabit. Leaving any part of themselves exposed would make them more susceptible to predators; in addition, not having a well-fitted shell stunts their growth. Because intact gastropod shells are limited, shell competition is an issue.
Hermit crabs are decapod (which literally means “ten footed”) crustaceans. Of their five pairs of legs, the first two are pincers, or grasping claws, the larger one of
which they use to defend themselves and shred food. The smaller claw is used for eating. The second and third pairs of legs help them walk, and the final two pairs help keep them in their shells.
Characteristic of crustaceans, hermit crabs do not have an internal skeleton but rather a hard exoskeleton of calcium. They also have two compound eyes, two pairs of antennae (which they use to sense smells and vibration), and three pairs of mouthparts. Near the base of the their antennae is a pair of green glands that excretes waste.
Sea anemones (water-dwelling, predatory animals) are often found attached to hermit crabs’ shells. In exchange for transportation and a helping of the hermit crab’s leftovers, sea anemones help to ward off the hermit crab’s marine predators,such as fish and octopus. Other predators include birds, other crabs, and some mammals (man included).
Known as the “garbage collectors of the sea,” hermit crabs will eat mostly anything, including dead and rotting material on the seashore, and thus they play an important role in seashore cleanup. As omnivores, their diet is varied and includes everything from worms to organic debris, such as grass and leaves.