An Inside Look at the Crazy World of Crabs
Welcome to the crazy world of crabs! These somewhat shy and secretive creatures are found in the sounds, marshes, creeks, beaches and Atlantic Ocean waters of Emerald Isle and all along the Crystal Coast of North Carolina. They're cute, they're quick, and they're elusive. With such a diverse barrier island ecosystem here on Bogue Banks comes a wide variety of crabs—which also happens to be a good indicator of a healthy ecosystem overall. So yay for all the crabs!
You've probably enjoyed the tasty blue crab at some point during your Emerald Isle, NC beach vacation, since they're the most popular kind of crab served here in the local restaurants. They're also considered North Carolina's most economically important seafood species, and the backbone of the commercial seafood industry here—so they're kind of a big deal.
The next time you step out of your vacation rental in Emerald Isle, be sure to keep an eye out for crabs of all kinds and see how many you can spot. Maybe you'll even try your hand at crab potting or netting a few of your own! But for now, let's learn more about North Carolina crabs, what they have in common, and the differing types found in this area. Then you'll be ready to identify them when you see them.
The Science and Classification of Crabs
Who's ready for a quick review of taxonomy? This will help you better understand the differences among the species of crabs you'll see here in Emerald Isle. We promise we'll make it quick and painless, and best of all you can school your kids on a few things!
What most of us would call crabs fall into two groups: Anomura and Brachyura. Anomura is a mix-and-match that includes hermit crabs, porcelain crabs and mole crabs, while Brachyura is made up of many species of true crabs such as the blue crab. Going up the taxonomy ladder, crabs inhabit the order Decapoda (meaning “10 legs”) along with lobsters, shrimp and cray fish, which all fall into separate infraorders. Horseshoe crabs, which share only a common name with most crabs, are in a totally different class (Merostomata) from other crabs (Crustacea). They are considered to be more closely related to spiders and prehistoric creatures than to crabs. All of these creatures, along with insects and arachnids, fall into the phylum Arthropoda, which means “joint leg.”
See, that was pretty easy. Now let's move on to the differing types you might see during your Emerald Isle beach vacation.
Types of Crabs You Might See in Emerald Isle, NC
Crabs are some of the cutest crustaceans around, and there are so many kinds. Here are a few of the many types of crabs you might encounter during your Emerald Isle beach vacation. More than 50 species of crabs have been documented at Fort Macon State Park, and they represent species that you would typically expect to find along our entire coast.
Blue Crabs & Other Swimming Crabs
Most crabs use their legs for walking, however one family of crabs is adapted for swimming. The fifth pairs of legs on speckled, lady and blue crabs are flattened and used like paddles. Along with their thin, streamlined shell they are able to propel quickly through the water in search of prey. Other species of swimming crabs are the iridescent, flat-surface, and plain lady.
Calico Crabs (aka Leopard Crabs)
One of our most colorful crabs is the calico crab, also referred to as the leopard crab due to large red spots on the pale yellow shell. These crabs are scavengers that feed on the bits and pieces of decaying plants and animals. It also is called a leopard crab, depending on who you ask. Whatever you decide to call it, it is quite a stunning pattern to behold.
Along the edges of the marshes, it is easy to find the semi-terrestrial fiddler crab. Sand, mud and brackish water fiddler crabs can be found in their same-named habitats. The male of these species is known for its large fiddle-shaped claw that it waves about to attract females or threaten other males. And yes, that claw can draw blood—so mind your fingers!
Ghost crabs are on average about 2" wide across, feature long legs, and eyes that are perched on stalks and can rotate a full 360 degrees. Their name derives from their pale, sandy color, which makes them almost invisible against the shoreline until they start moving. To see them for yourself—head to the oceanfront after the sunset, turn on the flashlight, and watch the local ghost crab population scatter!
Hermit crabs live in the cavity of gastropod mollusk shells. Even though they are crustaceans, they are not true crabs because they are soft-bodied and don’t possess a protective shell. That's why they take up residence inside the protective armor of a seashell. There are at least six species off the local waters. Most common is the striped, but there are dwarf, banded, flat-clawed, clam shell and giant red hermit crabs.
The lady crab is a brightly colored, aggressive, swimming crab. In the water and under direct sunlight, this crab's coloring appears iridescent. It's name comes from the beautiful color patterns on the shell, although there are male lady crabs as well as females. The sharp, powerful pincers are whitish in color with purple-spotted tips and jagged teeth. The last pair of legs are modified into paddles for swimming.
Spider crabs, known for their long spider-like legs, are masters at camouflaging themselves among the oyster shells. These crabs will decorate themselves with algae to blend in with their surroundings. Some will even attach live sea anemones on their shells to ward off predators with their stinging tentacles. They are a formidable opponent for sure.
The biggest and intimidating-looking crab in our area is the stone crab. Their shell can get up to seven inches wide and is protected with boxing-glove-like claws. The claw has one movable finger and an immovable palm that can crush and cut into oysters and other mollusks. Like all crabs they molt as they grow. After molting their shell is soft, making them vulnerable to predators. To avoid detection while molting, they usually shed their old shell under the darkness of night.
DID YOU LEARN SOMETHING NEW ABOUT CRABS?
Let us know in the comments below! 🦀