Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

September 26, 2007

Cape Hatteras Hard Hats

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:18 am

The Wandering Naturalist

 For the next few weeks you’ll be hearing from me while I am on the road.  Some might call this jaunt a vacation, but a naturalist vacation is usually a busman’s holiday. I’ll continue to do what I always do and see what the regional scene offers.  My ability to check in will depend on our ability to connect to a local internet server from time to time, since we are camping on this trip.  My blogs will be short and (hopefully) sweet and will be based on a series of photos. Think of these sessions as a series of postcards sent home by your wandering naturalist.


Cape Hatteras, North Carolina

  The wild rolling dunes, crashing Atlantic surf, and bustling town waterfronts of the Cape Hatteras are home to a wide variety of crabs.  Feeling a bit crabby myself due to the unusual late September heat wave, I thought this might be an appropriate topic to discuss.  Over the last few days I have encountered these leggy crustaceans at every turn (and on nearly every plate).

  Although the pounding surf line is a harsh environment for wildlife, one diminutive crab calls this environs home.  The Mole Crab really doesn’t look like a crab at all; it looks more like a crayfish without tail or appendages.  Living just under the surface sand these “moles” filter out debris from the backflow water from a dying wave. They stick their heads out of the sand just long enough to perform this duty and quickly retreat to avoid the Whimbrils, Oystercatchers, and other hungry beach combers.

  I was fortunate enough to get hold of a whole one – well, relatively whole (it had a hole in his head left by one of those beach birds).  While the cast skins are all over the beach, their owners are much more cryptic. Since the photo doesn’t do it too much justice, I did a field sketch to illustrate the filtering antennae and arrangement of stubby legs (look here and here).  It really does resemble a pebble.  I guess that’s a good shape to have if you are a beach bum like this.

  Just up from the surf is the domain of the Ghost Crab.  During the day their numerous burrows dot the beach and dune slopes (look here).  Tiny tracks mark the feeding activities of each burrow owner.  Large individuals leave much larger tracks that register military precision while co-coordinating their many legs (look here).

   Although most of the Ghost Crabs are tiny, they get to be pretty sizable. This large one was master of a small estuary beach and held court from the safety of his large burrow.  I caught his lordship away from his burrow and he wasn’t happy about it.  Eventually he turned to offer a taste of his substantial claws and caused me to back off.  True to their name, these crabs appear and disappear like spirits.  They blend into the sand so well that at times they can only be seen via their shadow (see here).

   Clouds of vicious salt marsh mosquitoes have kept me away from the haunts of the familiar Fiddler Crabs, so I can’t offer any photos of these lop-sided beasts.  I did encounter a crab that I had not seen before outside the confines of a pet store – the Hermit Crab.  These fellows were patrolling the quiet edge waters on the estuary side of the Cape. Hermits take over the empty shells of snails, whelks and periwinkles to use as mobile homes.  When they outgrow their old house, they seek real estate in a larger shell.  Transferring from one shell to another can be tricky business since the hind end of the Hermit Crab is very soft and un-armored.  The whole body plan of the hermit is elongated, as you can see here.  I especially admired the long eye stalks. 

This one picked up his camper and hauled shell across the sea wall in order to get back to his liquid element.   Last, and certainly not least in this incomplete tour of Cape Crabs, is the blue Crab.  Here is a crab that everyone can love – inside and out.  We enjoyed several meals consisting of this succulent delight, but we also did some live crab watching off the pier behind the restaurant in Nags Head.  In the dim light of the setting sun (the sun sets here at 7 pm!) the waters beneath the boardwalk began to swarm with sulking forms.  I was able to take a shot of a one-armed Blue resting on an old crab trap.  

  Though the photo is blurred by several feet of cloudy water, you can see the prominent flippers on the back pair of legs.  Blues are swimming crabs and their scientific name literally translates as “Beautiful Swimmers.”   They use these paddles at times when side walking won’t do. 

  A fleet of jellyfish entered the cove as the last reflected glow of the sun washed over the bay.  We left our one armed bandit to his night-time wandering.  I’m pretty sure one of the things he’s looking for is his lost limb.  Once he finds it, in true crab fashion, he’ll probably eat it and drink to the success of his remaining claw.

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