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Vol. 15, no. 2
April/May 2012


Crustacea Fantastica 

Story by Julia Steele

Photographs by Susan Middleton


Ninety million years ago
dinosaurs weren’t the only creatures roaming the Earth. Hermit crabs were out there exploring, too. These tiny crustaceans have been around far, far longer than us, perfecting the skill of selecting the ideal house and transporting it as needed. Along the way, as members of that much-overlooked group of mini marvels—the marine invertebrates—they’ve played a key role in the evolution of the Earth’s oceans: foraging, scavenging and just generally cleaning up around the place. “The little things that run the world,” is how Susan Middleton describes marine invertebrates, and she has had a particular soft spot for hermit crabs ever since she was a girl and watched them crawling around the beaches and tidepools of her Puget Sound home. Decades later, when she had become one of the world’s foremost wildlife photographers, she was offered the chance to make portraits of hermit crabs and took it. “They are so interesting visually,” she says of her subjects, “their colors and textures so diverse. They are miracles of construction.”

At right, a Ciliopagurus strigatus or cone shell hermit crab, which has a pancaked body adapted to fit into the narrow opening of a cone shell.