While I was out enjoying a beautiful Saturday at the Delaware Seashore State Park beach (…well snoozing in my chair…) , I was abruptly awoken to the vision of a small crab, its legs being dangled in front of my face. Then came the excited question: “Can I eat it?!”
No, no you can’t. Unlike blue crabs, I don’t recommend eating the Atlantic Ghost Crab (unless you’re a bird or raccoon). But the question made me realize that many beach-goers have never seen one of these little guys skittering across the sand. These visitors either visit more disturbed beaches where ghost crabs can’t survive, or they simply haven’t been outside at the right time of day.
Commonly found on coastal beaches and back backshores of Delaware from spring to autumn, the ghost crab is often spotted coming out of their sand burrows near the dunes during the cooler parts of the day. Ghost crabs dig burrows in the sand, often hundreds of yards from the ocean, where they seek shelter from the sun and predators, and use
the burrows to hibernate during the winter. To the average beach-goer, these just look like holes in the sand.
Younger crabs burrow closer to the water and are darker in color, whereas older crabs burrow higher up on the beach and are lighter in color. (The crab in the picture to the right picture is likely an adult because of its lighter colored shell.) Incredibly, they can even change their colors depending on their surroundings!
One common misconception about these little guys is that they must frequently return to the ocean to wet their gills. While this is the primary method of achieving this, ghost crabs can also use the fine hairs located on the base of their legs to wick up water from damp sand. Then later, when they are able to return to the water, they brace themselves on the sand and let the incoming waves crash over their bodies, rather than entering the water completely.
Unfortunately, humans have a direct impact on ghost crabs and can easily collapse or drive them out of their burrows.
So next time you go to the beach, take care not to trample the sand that may cause the burrows to collapse. Pick up a piece of litter; litter washed from streets or left directly on the beach can trap and kill the crabs. Lastly, but most importantly, do your part for clean water because the land and water are directly connected.