Hermit Crabs are ‘Wearing’ Our Plastic Waste

Hermit crabs around the globe, known for their resourcefulness in finding protective shells, are now showing a concerning preference for plastic waste.

The conclusion is drawn from an analysis of photos captured by passionate wildlife enthusiasts and shared on the internet.

Scientists expressed deep sadness upon witnessing the living conditions of the animals in our waste.

It was reported that a significant number of hermit crab species were found using “artificial shells” – objects that humans had thrown away.

The discovery has been published in the prestigious journal Science of the Total Environment.

The study utilised social media and photo-sharing websites, as Marta Szulkin, an urban ecologist from the University of Warsaw, pointed out: “We began to observe something truly extraordinary.”

“Instead of being adorned with a beautiful snail shell, which is what we’re used to seeing, they would have a red plastic bottle cap on their back or a piece of a light bulb.”

She and her colleagues from the University of Warsaw, Zuzanna Jagiello and Łukasz Dylewski, discovered a significant number of 386 individuals who were utilising artificial shells, primarily plastic caps.

“Based on our calculations, it has been observed that this type of shelter is utilised by 10 out of the 16 species of land hermit crabs worldwide. Additionally, this behaviour has been documented in various tropical regions across the globe,” Professor Szulkin explained.

The potential effects of these materials on the small, vulnerable crustaceans are still uncertain, leaving many questions unanswered.

“Upon viewing these images, Prof Szulkin expressed a sense of deep sadness,” Prof Szulkin shared during an interview with BBC Radio 4’s Inside Science. “Simultaneously, it’s important to acknowledge that we are currently in a distinct era where animals are adapting to their surroundings.”

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Conflict surrounding plastic

This internet-based ecological study has uncovered a fascinating discovery – the use of artificial shells is a widespread occurrence across the globe.

“It was observed in a significant majority of terrestrial hermit crab species,” stated Prof Szulkin. “That’s what we were able to determine solely from the photographs captured by tourists.”

The researchers suggest that the findings raise fresh inquiries regarding the interactions and utilisation of plastic by these coastal crustaceans. In addition to determining any potential harm it may cause, scientists are interested in studying how it could impact their evolution.

These crabs have cleverly adapted to scavenge and repurpose discarded snail shells as a means of protecting their delicate bodies. And when there is a limited number of shells available, the crabs will engage in fierce competition for them.

Prof Szulkin explained that it is uncertain how much the element of novelty might impact the crabs and if they will engage in conflicts over artificial plastic shells.

The researcher mentioned that there has been a decline in natural snail shells, leading her to suspect that the animals might be finding it easier to locate an artificial alternative. Additionally, the utilisation of lighter, plastic ‘shells’ could potentially enhance the survival rates of smaller, weaker crabs due to their increased ease of transportation.

There is undoubtedly a significant amount of plastic present in the marine environment, providing a wide range of options for the animals. According to a recent study, the amount of plastic pollution in our oceans is staggering, with an estimated 171 trillion pieces of plastic now floating in the water.

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Experts have issued a warning that if no action is taken, the current situation could nearly triple by 2040.

However, there is optimism that in 2024, countries may finally come together to ratify a much-anticipated international agreement aimed at eradicating the problem of plastic pollution.

According to Mark Miodownik, a professor of materials and society at University College London, there is a valuable lesson for humans to learn from these images. “Similar to the hermit crabs,” he remarked, “it would be beneficial for us to increase our plastic reuse efforts rather than simply throwing it away.”

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