The central American river turtle, also known as the Hickatee, is a species that is critically endangered according to the IUCN red list. Their population trend is decreasing in the wild, making them of extreme concern for conservation. Historically this turtle is the only surviving species of a family of turtles which used to be wide spread. However, now this turtle is restricted to parts of Central America, Southern Mexico and Guatemala. It is a large freshwater turtle that is nocturnal highly aquatic and completely herbivorous feeding only on plant matter. Unfortunately due to its large size it has been hunted in its range and over exploited for centuries. This over exploitation has led to the critically endangered status of this turtle and reduced its populations to the point where it is likely that they may become extinct.
Habitat and Reproduction
These turtles tend to live in deep rivers and lakes and a travel using areas that are flooded during the wet season. As the floodwaters recede they will occasionally become trapped in small ponds and lakes until the next wet season occurs and floods allow them to travel back to the deeper rivers. Not much is known about the reproduction of these turtles. Females of the species like to nest at the peak of the wet season and can lay up to a for clutches of eggs. Not much is known about the nesting and reproduction of the species due to the low numbers of populations, how fragmented they are in Central America, and the lack of research done on them. It is known that the nests are often laid below high water points and often flood for weeks, but this flooding of the nest is not shown t cause any kind of negative impacts on the survival of the hatchlings.
Hunting and over exploitation
The biggest threat to these aquatic turtles is over hunting of mature turtles and their eggs. This turtle has been hunted since the time of the Mayans and Hickatee with rice is a traditional meal that is widely eaten, especially in Belize, to this day. It is relatively easy to hunt the hickatee since it is inactive during the day time and when sold at market can bring in much profit. There are laws in place that the hunting of the turtles to be illegal in Central America since 1975, but there is a lack of enforcement which leads to the over exploitation of what populations are left.
Research and conservation
There has been some research done on these turtles, but not much is known about them. They have not had a formal population assessment throughout their range in years, and studies are extremyl difficult to perform due to lack of funding and since they have a highly fragmented population. There is a need for sites and areas to be protected to protect these turtles resources and habitat. Protection to is needed for their food sources and the water quality of the homes that these turtles live in. Management of the areas where the Hickatee is found, as well as restoration of some natural processes in highly developed areas. Species management and recovery plans are heavily needed in order to direct conservation efforts including species reintroduction where they have been exploited and conservation in the form of captive breeding and head starting. Other efforts for education include formal classroom education, training and awareness, and communications in the community where these turtles are being hunted and exploited. Encouragement for compliance and enforcement of laws to protect this animal is also heavily needed. It is also suggested that further research be done on the actual population size distribution and trends within those populations how often these turtles are harvested what they are used for and how they contribute to the livelihood of locals who are harvesting them as well as general population trends throughout their range.
It has been another big year for Ferrets and Friends, LLC. This year, we debuted a new package system to create more flexibility for our customers. Our macaw parrot has been a popular new addition to our already diverse and colorful crew. We updated our reptile enclosures to a great new setup from Animal Plastics. We also moved to a larger and more spacious location to provide more space for all of our animals friends.
We added three new species to our shows this year including our African Pygmy Hedgehog, Harlequinn Macaw, and Mexican Red Knee Tarantula. For 2019, we are not planning on adding any new species to our collection. Instead, we will be partnering with Astoria Dressage to add pony party packages next summer.
Unfortunately this year, we said goodbye to quite a few of our cherished animals stars and an excellent animal educator. Miss Lina is no longer with Ferrets and Friends and has relocated with her animals. Over the past couple years, she shared her passion for animals at a total of 122 events and worked hard on our social media accounts and marketing. We thank her for her hard work and wish her the best in her future endeavors!
While we said goodbye to some of our animal friends due to this change, we also experiences some significant deaths. Two of our ferrets, Samson and Ramona, passed away this spring. Samson retired earlier this year due to the progression of his insulinoma. We lost Samson shortly after his sixth birthday. Ramona had an unexpected and unknown illness for which she was humanely euthanized during an emergency veterinary visit. She was five years old when she passed. We regret to say that ferret lifespans are far too short and healthy ferrets can suddenly become extremely ill in a short amount of time. It is important to find out in advance about what emergency veterinary services near you are equipped to care for ferrets.
Our Friends' Health in 2018
In 2018, our animals have had fewer illnesses than they did in the previous year. This is mostly due to the average age of our ferrets. In 2017, we had four ferrets over the age of three years old which is a common age for ferrets to become ill. After our two oldest ferrets passed in the spring, our oldest ferret is now Jack who is three years old. Unfortunately, Jack was diagnosed with adrenal disease this summer. The good news is that his hormone implant has been working great so he has been his happy, active, and fluffy self!
This year, two of our new bunnies had their spay surgeries and both went well! Jessica even had a bit of a surprise for our vet as she actually had internal male parts instead of female. Our vet was very confused when he couldn't find what he was looking for originally. She's a very special bunny! After the spay, some of Wednesday's territorial behavior significantly decreased. Getting bunnies spayed is important for their health as it eliminates their risk for uterine or ovarian cancer.
Jasmine (Chinese Water Dragon) and Domino (Green Cheek Conure) have continued laying eggs this year. Our leopard gecko, Cici, has stopper laying eggs. In her older age, she seems to be slowing down and has been struggling with a cyst on her eye which we have been monitoring with our veterinarian. She is currently being retired from animal shows as our younger leopard gecko, Fiona, takes her place.
Our Partnership with Pets on Wheels Maryland
This fall, the owner of Ferrets and Friends met with the Executive Director of Pets on Wheels. Pets on Wheels is a nonprofit organization that provides pet therapy visits to a variety of settings. After a an wellness check from our veterinarian and a thorough examination from Gina (Executive Director at Pets on Wheels), we are excited to announce that two of our ferrets, two of our parrots, and our panther chameleon have all passed the temperament screening to be therapy animals. We couldn't be more proud of our animal friends! So far, Jubilee has been popular with Hospice of the Chesapeake making her visits to patients in a variety of settings.
New to the Zoo in 2018
This year, we added eight animals to our care. Four of our new additions have been doing a great job as animal ambassadors and we are waiting for the remaining four to finish their quarantine period. We added two ferrets (Aurora & Logan), a Harlequinn Macaw (Jubilee), a Veiled Chameleon (Bruce), a Chinese Water Dragon (Hiccup), a Blue Tongue Skink (Loki), a Colombian Red-tail Boa (Thor), and a baby king snake (name pending). Of these animals, only one had a previous home. Thor is a two year old albino boa constrictor and already measures an impressive five feet in length. We are excited for him to make his official debut next year!
Currently, Ferrets and Friends has 45 animals in our care. Of those animals, about 40 animals are being used in shows at the time of writing. Next year, we hope to start offering packages with some Equine friends. Rebecca, our animal educator, has been hard at work rehabilitating two ponies and training them to interact with people. They have made great improvements this past summer in riding lesson and camps. We hope to feature them in some new packages for 2019.
World of Pet Expo January 25-27
Have you been waiting for an opportunity to see our animal friends in person? Check us out at the World of Pet Expo on January 25th-27th. It is located at the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium, MD. There will be lots of vendors and performances. For more information, visit www.worldofpets.org. Thank you for your continued support and we look forward to seeing you in 2019!
CrocFest is a non-profit organization that raises money twice each year for the research and conservation of various crocodilians. This is a wonderful fundraising event that I am always so excited and proud to participate in. Earlier this December the winter 2018 CrocFest fundraising event was put on at Gatorama - a home to predominantly crocodilian residents, Gatorama provides captive housing for various crocodilians including American alligators, American crocodiles, Saltwater crocodiles, Nile crocodiles, and many more. In addition to the main attraction, this facility houses various tortoises, lizards, and snakes for entertainment and educational purposes. Gatorama generously opened their doors to be the platform and location for winter CrocFest to occur, and donated all admission to the park directly to the CrocFest cause.
Winter CrocFest 2018 raised money and awareness for the Indian Gharial. The Indian Gharial is one of only two species of it's kind, and it is suffering tragic decline. The beneficiary of the funds raised this year go to Jeff Lang. Dr. Lang is a world rebound crocodilian biologist who taught Animal Behavior and Vertebrate Zoology at the University of North Dakota for over 20 years and has headed various research projects focusing mainly on crocodilians and turtles.
In 2008 there was a mass die-off of over 110 Indian Gharials. This tragic event sparked the Gharial Ecology Project (GEP) headed by Jeff and another biologist in India, Romulus Whitaker. Together they obtained some funding to radio track Gharial in the area where the mass die-off occured in order to see how this even influenced reproduction of the species along with other aspects of their ecology. Jeff has been directing this effort as an unpaid volunteer, paying for his airfare and expenses for three trips a year since 2008 and training dedicated staff for the project.
His efforts to date have ruled out some of the potential obvious causes for the Gharial die-off included tainted food sources and pollution of habitat. This suggest an event specific to Gharials - disease, genetic mutation, or potentially response to stress. The research has document movement of size classes from hatchling to adult, males and females, daily and seasonal patterns of movement which are all important towards understanding the life of Gharials and allowing scientists to identify key factors to move the species towards recovery.
The money raised at CrocFest goes directly to Jeff and his research group in order to further fund the research and conservation of this amazing g species.
CrocFest is broken up into two parts:
Silent auction, and live auction. The wonderful event has gracious donors and caterors whom provide beverages, food, and servers for the event. These tasty delights are there to enjoy while attendees mingle amongst th8emselves, look at auction items, and enjoy exhibits.
These auctions, in addition to t-shirt sales and the price of admission, are the main method to raise funds. All auction items are donated by wonderful supporters of crocodilian conservation and research. Items this year ranged from ZooMed and Zilla reptile tanks and accessories, authentic clothing and decorations from India, beer, jewelry, decorative plates, live reptiles and arachnids, custom artwork, food, alcohol, knives, tickets to various Florida attractions and much much more.
The silent auction goes from event start until 5PM, at which point the highest bidder takes their winnings. After the silent auction items have been claimed and donations collected it is time for the main event: the live auction. The rules are simple- if you raise your hand, scratch your head, or get outwardly excited over an auction item you make a bid....its all for conservation, remember? Highest bid takes all, and even the auctioneer can bid things out from the crowd. This is quite a lively event, and battles to outbid one another can escalate quite dramatically (and quickly).
The important part of CrocFest is to remember that ALL proceeds go directly towards research and conservation of wonder crocodilian species in need. This year winter CrocFest raised over $40,000.
Everyone loves a happy beginning
CrocFest will continue to raise money and awareness for crocodilian research, and has already announced its summer 2019 CrocFest event which will take place in June 2019 at Zoo Miami in southern Florida.
The red foot tortoise is a species that is native to South America, and are closely related to yellow foot tortoises which live in the same area. They grow to be an average of 12 inches long from the front of their shell to the back, but they are known to reach 16 inches. Their carapace, or the top of their shell, is mostly black with a patch of lighter red-orange coloration in the middle of each scute. Their legs, tail, and head all are dark in color as well with scales that contain red, orange, and yellow pigment. They live in a variety of habitats ranging from dry savannah to forests around the Amazon Basin. They are very common in the pet trade, and due to this they have been collected to the point of vulnerability of extinction.
Their diet is just as variable as their habitat. They are omnivorous tortoises and their diet consists of an assortment of plants, grasses, flowers, fungi, carrion, invertebrate, and many fruits when they are available. Common fruits that are consumed in the wild are cacti, figs, bromeliad fruit, and more. The tortoises will eat the entire fruit and seeds which make them super important in the seed dispersal of many plants since the plant will grow wherever the seeds are excreted! Their diet usually changes seasonally base don availability of food resources. In the wet season it has been found to consist of 70% fruit, 25% leaves and shoots, and the remaining diet was fungi and carrion. In the dry season fruit is reduced to 40% of the diet, 23% of the diet is flowers, 16% is fresh leaves and shoots, and the remaining percentage has been found to be fungi and carrion.
In The Pet Trade
The red foot tortoise is considered vulnerable and is listed in CITES Appendix II which restricts international trade but does not restrict movement within the country and so many are still being smuggled in large numbers. There is conservation occurring within parks and refuges as well as captive breeding programs, but the tortoises are still exported in large numbers as pets and food – from 200 to 2005 there were over 35,000 exported.
In the United States red foot tortoises are bred on a large scale, especially in southern states where they can be housed outside for most of the year. As babies they are relatively inexpensive at approximately $80 each. They are readily available in pet stores, reptile expos, and directly from breeders. Hatchlings begin at roughly 2 inches and grow to be around 12 inches in length over the next 10 years of life. The life span of a tortoise varies depending on the quality of care it receives, but most can live to be over 50 years old in the wild – in captivity their life expectancy is much higher due to no threat of predation. A full-grown adult should be kept in a rather large enclosure – 2 ft x 6 ft is the recommended size for an adult red foot.
The long lives and need for a relatively large enclosure mean that red foots are likely a pet that will be re-homed or passed on to children as time passes. However, this is not always the case and tortoise owners can be left with an unwanted pet. In Florida, and likely other southern states, we have seen an epidemic of released pets. Given the year-round warm climate in Florida we often see release exotic pets. Red foot tortoises are on the list of pets found released (or escaped) throughout Florida. From 2007 to 2017 there are 25 cases of found red foot tortoises in Florida. All of these tortoises at one point in time were a personal pet, and many of them had been released in rural sites near Gopher tortoise burrows. This selection of gopher tortoise burrow as a release site is potentially a sign that the red foot tortoise was likely released by a person. Most people, when they have pets that are unwanted or they cannot care for will put their pet in a place where they think they will be safe, and while a Gopher tortoise burrow seems like a great choice it is not. All unwanted pets should be taken to shelters, pet stores, or advertised a “free to a good home” in an attempt to keep it in captivity. Released tortoises can spread disease to native turtles and tortoises which could be devastating to native populations. Not all released pets are lucky, and they will often wander until they reach a road and are at the mercy of vehicular traffic.
To learn more about red foot tortoises:
The common boa constrictor belongs to the family "Boidae" which is composed of small to large snakes which constrict their prey. The common boa lives in tropical North, Central, and South America with a few individuals in the Caribbean. It has a wide distribution of habitat types it utilizes, and can be found in dry mountainous areas to grassland and woodland areas; on the ground and high up in trees. These boas can live for over 20 years and grow as large as 10 feet from nose to tip of tail. Their coloration can vary, but generally they are a brown-grey base color with a pattern of brown-red 'saddles' from just behind the head to the tail. This pattern is very effective camouflage in jungles and forests.
Boas give live birth, and can have litters of 20-60 individuals, but average to around 30 individuals born. They usually breed in the dry season (summer months). When born, the offspring can measure between 15-20 inches in length. After birth the young are completely independent and grow quite rapidly in their first few years, after about 4 years their young boas will mature and be able to reproduce on their own. Their ability to produce such large litters makes them very adept as an invasive specie. Having not true predators as adults, once they reach full size they are left alone to reproduce and grow the population.
Boas are very common in the pet trade, but similarly to the burmese pythons they grow quite large and can become a handful to take care of - especially when dealing with an individual who is not well socialized of friendly. In Florida there is a population of boas living in the wild. The common boa constrictor was first reported wild in Florida in 1990. There are established populations which have been breeding and self-sustaining for over 10 years. These large constrictors are very common in the pet trade and it is thought that their establishment is from animals being released or escaping from pet owners and distributors. There is also the possibility of snakes escaping when facilities are destroyed by hurricanes. For these boas it is thought that a reptile distributor released several hatching boas intentionally in south Florida in an attempt to establish a population in the Everglades. This animal is a threat to native animals, as it feed son lizards, birds, and mammals both on the ground and in trees. The established populations can potentially impact native species on a local level.
Locations of those found in Florida
Boas are constrictors and eat whole prey including small-medium sized mammals and birds. Their diet mostly consists of rodents, but will consume large lizards and mammals as large as ocelots. The younger boas feed on mice, birds, bats, lizards, and amphibians of increasing size as they grow. They are ambush predators and will often sit in one location waiting for prey to cross their path. In areas with low prey availability they will hunt at night. In Florida, they pose a threat to many species of threatened birds and mammals.
Florida Fish and Wildlife
UF Wildlife Ecology and Conservation
Animal Diversity Web
The Madagascar day gecko is yet another specie that has been introduced into the wild in the state of Florida. These reptiles belong to the gecko family, the genus (classification of animals) Phelsuma, and the species madagascariensis, These cool green geckos reside on the island of Madagascar, and they usually live in rainforest trees. The Madagascar day gecko is one of the largest species of day geckos, and can grow to be just under 9 inches in length. They are a green-blue color with brown-brick red spots down their backs, and a similarly colored stripe from their nostrils to behind their eye. While these geckos are mostly found in the trees of the rainforest, deforestation has caused them to lose much of their usual habitat, and they have been known to dwell in villages and live inside the huts and banana trees on the eastern coast of Madagascar as a result. These brightly colored creatures eat insects and fruit (but only if it is soft!), and have been known to eat pollen and nectar as well.
Madagascar Day Geckos are very common in the pet trade, and they are easily kept and bred for sale in the United States. Usually housed alone, these lizards can be very territorial and even male-female pairs will occasionally fight. They thrive in 50-60% humidity and 80-90 degrees Fahrenheit, making them perfectly suited for Florida weather. Day geckos were first reported as being seen in Florida in the 1990s. There is one population in one county which has been reported as sustainable and breeding on their own, and have been sightings in three other counties where breeding has not been reported.
The most established population of day geckos is located in the Florida Keys. They are seen on white mangroves, buttonwood trees, buildings, and other man-made structures near mangrove estuaries. They were first reported outside of the Keys, in Broward county in 1999. These animals were confirmed as released or escaped pets, and the population in the Keys is a result of a single introductory event. Due to their popularity in the pet trade, and the suitability of Florida weather, a pet breeder released many adult individuals with the intention of having them breed and he harvests the hatchlings to be sold as pets.
This is another great example of how easy it is for nonnative animals to become established in areas where they do not belong. The geckos do not appear to have an adverse impacts on native Florida wildlife, however species such as the Argentine tegu and Burmese python were released and are wreaking havoc on native animals in Florida.
There are over 40 different species of day gecko, but the Madagascar day gecko is one of the most well known species. Below are photo of other day gecko species:
Photos Provided by: https://www.arkive.org/ and https://www.flickr.com/photos/cas_docents/
For more information on Day Geckos in Florida:
Florida Museum Report
Rehoming a pet can often times be difficult to do, especially for no-so-furry-friends, but Florida is trying to make it a bit easier. The Cooperative Invasive Species Management Areas (CISMAs) along with Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) have come together to hold an even called Exotic Pet Amnesty Day. During this event people are able to drop off their pet and it will be found a new home with a pre-approved adopter.
This day gives people an alternative to releasing their exotic pet into the wild. When exotic pets are released into natural environments they can cause disruptions which are damaging to the ecosystem. Some examples of the havoc released pets can cause are the Burmese python and the Argentine black and white tegu in the Florida Everglades. These two species have populations in the wilds of Florida which originated from released or escaped pets. They both eat many native animals, and this impact can be seen in the decline of mammals throughout areas where pythons are present in Florida. The tegu, a known egg-eater, threatens the protected American Crocodile, ground nesting birds, and turtle species including sea turtles.
The early set up allows for pet owners to drop off and register their animals for adoption. Two Golden thread turtles that were dropped off to be adopted are pictured below. The Amnesty day accepts all types of animals, from sulcata tortoises to parrots to all kinds of snakes. Every animal that is surrendered gets a visual examination by a volunteer veterinarian. The vet will give the animal a quick examination to assess what condition it is in and if it can be adopted out. The below pictured Veiled chameleon receives a vet examination. The veiled chameleon can be found in populations scattered throughout south and central Florida, all of which are suspected to be human released individuals.
After the vet gives the animals a clear bill of health they are set along tables with information about their previous home – their species, name, age, sex, any of their quirks for the new owners to be aware of, toys and food preferences, and any notes from the vet. When the surrender period is over, the adopters are allowed to walk the line of tanks and cages to see what animals are available to be adopted. After the viewing, each adopter is randomly assigned a number, and those numbers are randomly drawn to give the order adopters may chose the animal(s) they wish to bring home. Once every adopter has had their chance, the hope is that every animal surrendered has been taken to a new home. Any animal not selected at the event is taken to a holding facility, and a notice is sent to approved adopters to find them a home with people who may not have attended the amnesty day event.
It is a happy new beginning for every animal and adopter who attends. The most recent pet amnesty day was held in West Palm Beach, Florida on the 19th of August 2018. I was able to volunteer at this event, and saw dozens of animals surrendered. Red-eared slider turtles, yellow belly slider turtles, golden thread turtles, Russian tortoises, hamsters, cockatoos and cocktails, just over a half dozen ball pythons, and even prairie dogs! It was amazing to see just how many candidates were brought in to be put up for adoption. Every animal that was given up was taken home by the end of the adoption event.
Since 2006 this Pet Amnesty Day program has been very successful at rehoming animals that are no longer desired, difficult to care for, or are unable to be cared for. Below are annual summaries of each Amnesty event in Florida - I hope the totals continue to rise as the years go on.
Learn More about Pet Amnesty Day...
For this chapter I will be focusing on five species, which are so common in some areas that they are often not thought of being, and invasive species. Animals and plants alike, some species are so common that they are often overlooked as invaders. This is especially common for plants that we see used for landscaping purposes or see in the wild frequently; an animals that we see every day on farms, kept as pets, or commercialized!
For More information:
Monk Parakeet, Quaker Parrot
The Monk parakeet, which is also commonly called the Quaker parrot, is a bird which grows to be approximately 11 inches in length from tail tip to top of head, and has bright green coloration with a grey breast and green-yellow belly. This bird originated from temperate and subtropical areas of Argentina and other surrounding countries in South America. This is a very common bird, which has expanded its native range as eucalyptus forestry industry also expanded. The forestry industry provided artificial forest habitat for the parrots to nest with little competition from other species for resources.
In the pet trade, these parakeets are known to make wonderful companions due to their ability to develop a wide vocabulary of words and phrases. These critters are anything but quiet, and are quick to learn mimicry and perform tricks when they are motivated by treats and praise. They are also available in a variety of color mutations including blue and “cinnamon”.
Although they are such wonderful pets, the Monk parakeet is actually banned for sale in many states. This bird has established feral populations in Spain, Portugal, Azores, Madeira, Balearic Islands, Gibraltar, France, Corsica, Malta, Cyprus, Sardinia, Italy, Greece, Channel Islands, Great Britain, Ireland, Belgium, British Columbia, Canada, Brazil, Mexico, Israel, Bermuda, Bahamas, Cayman Islands, Easter Island, Puerto Rico, South Korea, Japan, and the United States. Thousands of parakeets were imported to the USA in the 1960s-1980s (Lund, Nicholas. "The Monk Parakeet: A Jailbird Who Made Good". Audubon. Audubon. Retrieved 9 December 2016.), and many escaped or were intentionally released which cause several established populations to occur across seven states. The most prolific population exists in Florida, with estimates of 150,000 to 500,000 individuals (Gorman, James (8 September 2004). "Birds do it, bees do it ..." San Diego Union Tribune. New York Times News Service. Retrieved 9 December 2016.) Due to being seen as a pest, the parakeet has been banned for sale in California, Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky, Hawaii, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Wyoming, and Western Australia.
This invasive bird has been growing exponentially, with no show of slowing down until 2016. They have very few natural predators, diseases or other factors that would limit their population growth. Although they are thought to be agricultural pests, the real concern with Monk parakeets revolves around their massive nesting aggregations. The Monk parakeet builds its nest from sticks, and often are seen to breed in colonies where they will collectively build one large nest with multiple entrances for the various pairs of birds utilizing the space. Some of these collective nests have been seen to reach the size of small cars! These birds live to be 15-20 years old in the wild and as captive pets (Fasbach, Laura (23 July 2001). "A squawk in the park". Edgewater Online. Archived from the original on 28 September 2007. Retrieved 12 January 2008.). They often nest on man-mad structures including electrical poles and cellphone towers, causing them to have a heavy impact on electrical companies in several states. The most common method of control is through the removal of nests and trapping of the birds. There is also reproductive control possible through contraception, which is a long-term, non-lethal population management strategy.
Most people who have pets have kept a pet hermit crab at some point in their lives, or know someone who did-- especially if they vacation at the beach. Pet store workers often hear complaints that hermit crabs don’t live very long, or worse, customers encouraging children to get these pets because they don’t live very long and they require little care or upfront cost. The thing is, none of that is true. Hermit crabs can live for multiple decades and get to be the size of a softball (counting their shell) but few people realize just how much work has to go into properly keeping hermit crabs.
Hermit Crab Anatomy
All hermit crabs have antennae, eye stalks, and 5 pairs of legs. The first pair have claws (one small and one large) for picking up food and defense, the next two pairs are walking legs, and the last two pairs hold the shell in place. Despite the fact many live on land, hermit crabs also have gills and have to constantly keep them moist. All hermit crabs except for the Coconut Crab also have a hard exoskeleton on the front portion of their bodies, including the claws, legs, head, and upper abdomen. The tail, however, is entirely soft. This is the part that the crab must protect at all costs, and why it carries a shell from another animal on its back!
On a hermit crab’s 4th legs, if its female, are tiny holes called gonopores which are used in breeding. You can see these legs by placing the crab in a clear-bottomed carrier and watching underneath until they walk around. You’re not going to end up with babies if you house male and female crabs together, though, as they absolutely cannot breed without the ocean tides and currents. The downside to this, though, is that not a single hermit crab has ever been born in captivity. This means that all hermit crabs you ever see for sale have come from the wild, and this is a conservation issue that can impact an island.
To have as little impact on the environment as possible, I recommend checking online for local hermit crab rescues if you’d like to become a hermit crab keeper (AKA Crabber). Don’t beat yourself up too much if you’ve bought a crab from a store before this, though-- I did it before I knew better too. Just try to adopt future friends for your crab rather than purchasing them. It’s amazing how many rescuers there are out there. (When I had to move and could not bring my crabs, I gave them to a rescuer who kept a colony of over 100 that I found through craigslist!)
Hermit Crab Species
There are over 1,000 hermit crab species. Some live in entirely marine environments, some in freshwater, and some on land. The Coconut Crab is particularly famous as the largest hermit crab species in the world-- it is so big that it cannot find a shell big enough to fit its back when it becomes full grown, and so it grows a hard exoskeleton across all parts of its body as it ages.
The kind of hermit crabs that most people think about for pets are usually the species known as a Caribbean Hermit Crab, or Purple Pincher. They got this name because they have one small claw and one very large, purple claw while the rest of them is usually tan and orangey-red. They have somewhat round eyes on top of their stalks. The second most common species you will find is the Ecuadorian Hermit Crab, which is easily distinguished by its claws being less exaggerated in size difference, having a tan or brown body all over (including its claws), and having elongated eyes. There are several other species that are kept as pets by hobbyists but they are harder to find and usually have to be bought from a specialist. They all have different sizes, colors, claw shape, and eye shape. For the most part all species are kept about the same, but they each have a few preferences for substrate type, water sources, etc. so be sure to do a little extra research if you find yourself with a different species. The care sheet here if focused on Caribbean Crabs, as they’re the easiest to find and care for.
Hermit crab care is very similar to keeping a vivarium for amphibians or tropical reptiles. When they are young, you can start with as small as a 10 gallon tank and grow your tank as the crabs do. To keep it affordable, check thift shops, craigslist, etc regularly for old tanks, or wait for a big sale at your local pet store (some offer a $1/gallon sale seasonally). Place thermometers and humidity gauges in the tank- at multiple locations if your tank is large. The tank requires a daylight bulb and a temperature between 75 and 85F. Crabbers recommend 80F, and one should never go below 70F as it may trigger hibernation or illness. It’s also helpful to have a slight gradient in the tank temperature as hermit crabs are cold blooded and need to regulate their body temperature using their environment. To do this, in addition to the heat from the light, place an under tank heater (UTH) on the back of the tank. Why the back? It will not only warm the air in the tank this way, but placing a UTH under the tank can result in a cracked tank bottom if your tank sits on a solid surface, or will fall off after awhile if the bottom of the tank stand is open.
Humidity is the hardest thing to keep-- below 70% will cause damage to a crab’s gills (and a slow suffocation) and above 80% invites mold growth. The best substrate to prevent mold and encourage digging is a roughly 50/50 mix of sand and coconut fiber. Play sand from the hardware store is fine, but smell it to make sure it hasn’t been contaminated by oils from delivery vehicles. This substrate should be moist at all times- just enough to build a sandcastle out of. Fill the tank four times as deep as the crab is large (about halfway up a long tank, or one quarter of the way up a tall tank). Place moss in one enclosed space in the tank (a food storage container will do). Spray the tank as needed and the moss daily to keep the humidity up. If you use a mesh lid, plastic wrap held down with aluminum tape on the exposed portions will seal it well.
Crabs are great climbers, so make use of the height in your tank to give them as much vertical space as possible. Nets, branches, and other aquarium furniture from the reptile or fish aisles are all useful, or make your own with natural materials like jute twine. Coconut fiber backdrops are good for this too and can help hold in humidity. Whatever you do, don’t become attached to where you place something, as crabs are stubborn things. If something is in their way, they will walk over it or push it, rather than go around. Be sure to give them hiding places as well.
As Caribbean crabs live along the coast, they are accustomed to both fresh and salt water. Provide one shallow dish of each- the dish should be deep enough for a crab to soak in, but not so deep they will drown. If you have many sizes of crabs, put a sponge in the dish to help the littlest ones climb out. All water should be dechlorinated, and only use aquarium salt to make your water mix, never kitchen salt.
The easiest part of caring for hermit crabs is their food. They are omnivorous and scavengers, so as long as you provide them with a base of hermit crab diet, you can change up the rest of their diet daily. I gave them the scraps from preparing my own meals as well as foodstuffs I collected outside or scraps from other animals’ diets. (Always clean food thoroughly as any pesticides and fertilizers can hurt them). For added calcium, use a large shell as a dish or provide cuttlebone from the bird section at the pet store.
Molting & Shell Shopping
Like other arthropods, hermit crabs have to shed their exoskeleton to grow, or molt. When they do this, they are extremely vulnerable and other animals, even crabs from their own colony, will try to eat them. To avoid others, hermit crabs will dig deep burrows and stay underground to leave their shell, shed their exoskeleton, harden their new exoskeleton (they are literally soft-shell crab when they first molt), and then put their shell back on before digging back up to the surface. Sometimes you get lucky and the crab will dig a tunnel alongside the glass of the tank so you can watch the process. Molting can take months, though, so if you can’t see where they are, sometimes people mistakenly think that their crab died. Rest assured, you will know if your crab has died because it will have the unmistakable smell of dead fish. If you don’t smell that, it’s in there somewhere (unless it got eaten but you’d find its shell).
Hermit crabs change their shells regularly. Just like we get too big for our clothes, crabs need to constantly “shop” for new shells. Some are pickier than others-- but generally they prefer a shell with an opening that matches the size and shape of their large claw. This isn’t a tried and true rule, however, so it’s good to provide a wide variety of shells for your crabs at all times. Moe would change his shell several times in one day only to go back to his favorite colored shell, a bright green painted one he came home from the store in. Painted shells are bad for crabs, by the way, so be sure to take those out as soon as the crab has left theirs alone. The paint not only could contain toxins the crab might eat if the paint chips off (and this paint is often lead-based from China), but a painted or plastic shell is not breathable.
When looking for shells, there are a few ways you can go about it. One is to buy shells individually, which is what pet parents of full grown hermit crabs often have to do. If you have small crabs, though, the simplest way to buy shells is to purchase an assortment from the floral section of the craft store. Always be sure to sanitize the shells by boiling them in non-chlorinated water for about 15-20 minutes (add aquarium salt to help attract the crabs). Do this every couple months with the shells in the tank as well, whenever you do a deep clean, and use an old pot you don’t mind accidentally staining if you find out the hard way the shells were not clean.
Shells Preferred by Caribbean Hermit Crabs:
With patience and steady hands, it is possible to hold your hermit crab without gloves, even a large one. When picking them up, make sure your hands are clean and free of chemicals like soap, grab them by the widest part of their shell, tilt it back so they aren’t hanging out, and then place them in the palm of your hand. A crab will not pinch unless it feels threatened, such as if it feels like it is going to fall out of your hand. Once comfortable, they will walk around your hands to the edge, and place the other hand in front to give it a new part of “road” to walk on (this is called laddering). Don’t have them out too long without spraying them with dechlorinated water, or else their gills will dry and they will have trouble breathing. When transporting, do the same by filling the bottom of the carrier tank with substrate or a paper towel and spraying it with water. Put a towel over the carrier or put the carrier in a cooler to keep the crab warm and the humidity up.
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Ferrets and Friends, LLC has four writers bringing you information on a variety of topics from pets to wildlife, education to conservation, and from new developments in our business to information about our industry. Learn something new each week!