Gulf Coast Fisherman Magazine Vol 41 No 3 - Page 28

by John H. Hook The Bay Naturalist FIDDLERS & HERMITS T here are dozens of crab species in the Gulf. Blues and stones get most of our attention for good reason, but they aren’t the only important crab players in the bay theater. Wade and shore fishermen are most aware of the large numbers of hermit and fiddler crabs in that shoreline no-man’s- land known as the intertidal zone. Scurrying and stumbling, waving and probing, fiddlers and hermits scour the upper and lower intertidal zone making good use of resources that other bay dwellers can’t access. Covered by water at high tide and exposed at low, the intertidal zone can be an expansive area depending on how steep the shoreline plunges into the bay. Areas with large intertidal flats are common along the Gulf Coast and are the best places to find hermits and fiddlers. It’s a harsh environment with large swings in temperature and salinity, not to mention the obvious undependable water availability. It’s too tough of a neighborhood for all but the most resilient species. Fiddlers and hermits both take advantage of this treacherous territory by feeding on similar items which includes pretty much anything they can get their claws around. Fiddlers occupy the upper reaches since they handle exposure to air very well. Unlike most crabs, they breathe air instead of extracting oxygen from water so the upper flats are perfect for them. Hermits can be exposed to air for long periods of time, but they do much better if they have water over the tops of their borrowed snail shells. Con- sequently, they handle the scavenging duties in the lower zone. Dividing the territory like this keeps them from competing directly, even though they use the same food resources. 28 G U L F C O A S T F I S H E R M A N There are several species of fiddlers around the Gulf and all of them get their name from the male crab’s method of girlfriend courtship. Their huge, up to two-thirds their body weight, claw waves back and forth like the motion of a concert violinist. European and Asian common names for their species interpret this courtship behavior as waving the tide in and out instead. Either way that giant claw is useless for feeding. It does come in handy during battle for food or love, though, and this is another one of those cases where size does matter. Big claw males do much better with the ladies. Female crabs lack the large claw which gives them a feeding advantage. Shoving food into their mouths with both hands helps them get enough energy to produce all of those eggs. Most of their food does go to producing young, so even though they can get food more easily than males, the boys are much larger at the same age. Hermits belong to a completely different group of crabs from fiddlers. Their hard shell only covers half their body. Their abdomens are only covered by soft skin which makes them very vulnerable to things that like crab for dinner. Since just about everything that crawls, swims or flies likes crab cuisine, by Kathy Hook that’s a problem. It’s Photo solved by using abandoned snail shells as protection. Hermits have an anchoring arm at the end of their soft abdomen that makes them practically impossible to extract from a snail shell. Their armored front half can pull into their borrowed shells just far enough to give them shelter from seagull beaks and sheepshead teeth. The only time that they are in real danger is when they have outgrown their snail shell and must find a new one. Once a new shell is found they quickly release their abdominal anchor, scuttle the old shell and move into their new housing. The entire process only takes a few seconds to complete. From a fisherman’s per- spective, both crabs have more value than their ability to transfer energy in the intertidal zone. Reds, drum, sheepshead and pompano are all big fans of either fiddler or hermit on the menu. They are a DIY bait in most areas, though, and hermits are a bit tedious to extract from their snail shells. They are both very effective baits even if they are not quite as universally appreciated as shrimp. Either drifted under a cork along jetties and channel edges, or tossed into a surf gut, these two will produce quite effectively. Fiddlers and hermits are important members of our bay communities because they can move both nutrients and energy from the difficult to survive intertidal zone into either the bay or shoreline ecosystems. They do that by being excellent food for things like birds and raccoons on the upper end, and all types of crab eating fish in the bay. Their behaviors are interesting and more than a few kids have kept hermits for pets. Even if you never use any as bait, you can be assured that having fiddlers and hermits patrolling the intertidal zone helps make our bays what we want them G C )Ѽ)\\\T0$L $8 <4