The Hand Up Project
November 21, 2004 2:56 AM   Subscribe

Hermit crabs need your help. The intended audience of the Hand Up Project is someone who, while walking on a beach, might pause to contemplate a slowly ambulating hermit crab, wearing on its back a tiny, man-made plastic house bearing a corporate logo.
posted by Turtles all the way down (40 comments total)
Hermit crabs are awfully cute little creatures...what an intriguing idea this is!
posted by davidmsc at 3:08 AM on November 21, 2004

Cute and clever. I wonder how it would work out and if there are any potentially bad side effects.

I'm amazed by the description of what happens when more than one crab finds the same new shell at the same time.
posted by DyRE at 3:17 AM on November 21, 2004

I bought 2 hermit crabs for a friend once (his apartment wouldn't allow a puppy)... they were the most boring animals in the entire world. They stay in their shells, burrow into the sand to stay warm, and don't move until there's some food- and they make especially sure that you aren't around to see them eat it, because they hate you.

stupid crabs.
posted by BuddhaInABucket at 3:29 AM on November 21, 2004

any potentially bad side effects?

Ok, this is a long term one, but illustrates the dangers of meddling with natural selection...

Let's say the crabs adopt this new housing initiative and run with it. The plastic homes are so super dooper, lightweight and amazing that any hermit crab with taste switches to them. The result is that as the crabs evolve over time, they lose the ability to cope with the heavier natural shells.

However, all the plastic shells are manufactured at the same time of the same material and degrade at basically the same rate. So they are all going to become useless at about the same time. BAM!! An entire worldwide population of hermit crabs becomes homeless and unprotected within a generation. And because they have adapted to the lightweight shells, they can't adapt quickly enough back to the heavier ones. An altruistic motive turns into an ecological disaster.

Stupid humans
posted by middlebean at 4:09 AM on November 21, 2004

Is this a joke? I feel sick
posted by timb at 4:13 AM on November 21, 2004

I too am intrigued about the description of the shell exchanging process. It seems a little too fanciful to be true. I know that hermit crabs exchibit some really interesting behavior (camouflaging their shells with sea anenomies), but cooperation on this level? Anyone have any other information about this?

Or am I going to have to google it myself? Come on people, do my work for me.
posted by deafmute at 4:32 AM on November 21, 2004

It's a little weird, and the corporate branding idea seems way over-the-top. But maybe it's well-intentioned. It's certainly not the case that we're not presently preserving some species by very artificial means.

Even so, I strongly share middlebean's concerns. I also suspect there would be other unexpected difficulties. It's not that I don't think that nature can be improved upon—of course it can—but that I strongly suspect that we're rarely likely to be successful at doing so unless the problem domain is very limited or we understand the domain very well. Something tells me that neither of those conditions are true with regard to hermit crabs. I'm suspicious, for example, of making the artificial nearly identical. Everything that's supposedly an improvement could actually be a liability. We know, on the other hand, that the natural shells that hermit crabs prefer do the job just fine. So, at the very least, unless we're very confident we have exhaustive knowledge of the problem domain (ha!), the most prudent course of action would be to replicate what's natural and not try to improve on it.

But, really, I don't see the need to do that. And maybe this site is a hoax because offhand I can think of a variety of far more natural approaches to increasing the availabilty of hermit crab housing than this proposed initiative. And, even if artificial, hell, pick something that is at least self-sustaining in a modern economy (like a waste product or something) as opposed to something that would require both capital and manpower to periodically replenish. That's just asking for an eventual disaster.

On Preview: "...but cooperation on this level?" Why not? Cooperation is not an unheard-of evolutionary strategy. There's countless examples of it.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 4:35 AM on November 21, 2004

. . . not only could the replacement of heavier shells with these lighter synthetics cause them to grow weaker over time -- but it could potentially make them more likely to be blown about in strong wind. And, last I checked, plastic floats . . . so a strong gust of wind could send a hoard of them into the ocean. So you end up with a bunch of crabs that float and, eventually, just plastic floating around.

Those look just about the right size to put a good cork in a dolphin's blowhole.
posted by ThePrawn at 5:00 AM on November 21, 2004

I've got to agree with the detractors here, this really doesn't seem like a good idea. Unless you are very careful "helping" a natural process along tends to work out badly.

The shortage of natural shells for hermit crabs to live in is definitely a cause for concern. But I think it would be better to address the concern by fixing the reasons for the shortage of natural shells, not by the creation of artificial shells.

Additionally, and I know virtually nothing about hermit crabs, but I wonder if the shortage is real? Are there, really, fewer shells along the beaches now than there once were? Because the shortage of shells sounds like a built in population control to me
posted by sotonohito at 5:10 AM on November 21, 2004

And because they have adapted to the lightweight shells, they can't adapt quickly enough back to the heavier ones. An altruistic motive turns into an ecological disaster.

Does evolution occur at that speed? Plus would crabs really lose the ability to manage heavier shells? There would have to be both selection pressure and some really significant adaptive advantage to sacrificing strength in order for crabs to weaken on the time scale being discussed here.
posted by srboisvert at 5:27 AM on November 21, 2004

For those who think the idea is creepy, more ammunition:

We acknowledge that such trans-species caregiving may in fact be a form of control. In recognition of this paradox, the new structures are aesthetically based on the architecture of Giuseppe Terragni, an Italian Fascist active in the 1930s.

posted by Turtles all the way down at 5:41 AM on November 21, 2004

Couldn't they just brand their corporate logos onto real shells? You know, with, like.. stickers?
posted by jozxyqk at 6:07 AM on November 21, 2004

I hate to be the pessimist in all of this, but:

Are we sure we want to start littering our beaches with tons of little plastic logo boxes? It seems to me this might only increase the pollution that (probably) led to the shell shortage in the first place. Plus, they're ugly as all hell.

And: they're just crabs, right? Maybe those corporate donors could put their money towards pollution control or education so people won't unwittingly walk off with crabs' homes. That way, we benefit more than just hermit crabs (though they are undeniably cute).
posted by heydanno at 6:08 AM on November 21, 2004

Where's the corporate logos? I was expecting something more NASCAR...
posted by Balisong at 6:08 AM on November 21, 2004

Wow- how about advertising on all the endangered species!

There's that big empty black space on the side of pandas going to waste...
posted by fairmettle at 6:36 AM on November 21, 2004

I dunno. Maybe I'm a starry-eyed idealist, but I think there ought to be a clear line between conceptual art and interference with crabs through potential beach litter. But then Demaray's biography does state that "her work has involved domesticating the great outdoors by knitting sweaters for plants, upholstering stones and manufacturing alternative forms of housing for hermit crabs out of plastic." So maybe I'm just an ignorant know-nothing about this sort of thing.

[On preview: I hope odinsdream is right]
posted by idest at 6:45 AM on November 21, 2004

The lack of shells can't be seen as just a population break any more.
The increase in takeup of CO2 by the oceans has created a (tiny) drop in pH levels. However, this increased acidity has already started taking its toll on the miniature invertabrates like plankton and coral which are at the base of the carbon cycle. Their calcium carbonate shells are more readily dissolved by the harsher environment meaning that there is less calcium passed on to the higher levels, impacting the size and structural strength of molluscs' shells, etc.
As hermit crabs depend exclusively on the ability of other animals to provide shelter, it's not really surprising that the increase in carbon dioxide levels has left them with a dearth of larger, stronger shells.

Aside from that, plastics? Even biodegradable plastics? Why not biodegradable ceramics, which, like deafmute mentions, would act a lot more like the original shells if they were used for camoflage.
posted by NinjaPirate at 7:17 AM on November 21, 2004

Jeez, I'm English and I forget the extra "u".
posted by NinjaPirate at 7:18 AM on November 21, 2004

It's not a prank, just a pretty dumb conceptual art piece:

Setting aside the other ridiculous concepts, think practically: hermit crabs don't live in nice little glass jars and aquariums, they live on beachs that are covered with a lot of water twice per day. When you distribute the "shells", they'll float away before the crabs can climb into them. Second, when if any of them are quick enough to do it before they all float away, when the next tide comes in the crabs themselves would float away.

P.S.: mmm, pancakes ...
posted by spacehug at 7:32 AM on November 21, 2004

I fail to see how littering is somehow considered okay when you expect critters to make use of your litter.
posted by nightchrome at 7:34 AM on November 21, 2004

"Twenty-five percent of the initial crab population chose to move into a new, fabricated home when presented with the novel structures for a period of two months."

Is that supposed to be good?

I'm not convinced Demaray really intends for these things to be used... seems like a promo piece to me.

This study [.pdf] gives you a good idea of artificial shell design in a controlled experiment.
posted by crythecry at 7:48 AM on November 21, 2004

spacehug: What a waste of 207 perfectly good pancakes.
posted by Faint of Butt at 7:48 AM on November 21, 2004

What a terribly misguided idea.
posted by rushmc at 8:21 AM on November 21, 2004

Thanks NinjaPirate. I wasn't aware that the increasing CO2 in the oceans was degrading shells.

Sounds like addressing the root of the problem (increasing CO2 absorption changing ocean pH) is a bit more urgent than building plastic houses for hermit crabs. Though, as you pointed out, if anyone was going to build fake shells for hermit crabs ceramics would be a better approach.
posted by sotonohito at 8:24 AM on November 21, 2004

I dunno... If we're going to spend this much time and energy trying to protect a species which is having troubles due to environmental changes, wouldn't it make more sense to do it to one that's actually in some sort of danger?

Yes, hermit crabs are cute. But there are billions of the things out there. They aren't endangered in any significant way, and if there are less shells on the beach, then the best thing is to let them die back a bit. Otherwise you're just making the problem worse. (assuming you could actually get enough of these houses onto crabs to make a statistical difference in breeding patterns, which is doubtful) Your attentions could be much better focused on other species.

Otherwise, if you have an urge to "save" the hermit crabs, just adopt a couple from the mall.
posted by InnocentBystander at 8:34 AM on November 21, 2004

But don't soda cans, and all the other things hermit crabs use as shells float away too? What's the difference?

Hermit crabs all over the Pacific and Indian oceans, from heavily developed Asian coastlines to remote islands, are starting to make homes in plastics and glass, Barnes reports in the December issue of Biologist. "Suitably shaped persistent rubbish, like bottle tops, could yet become one of the most plentiful sources of housing," he predicts.
That doesn't surprise Brian Hazlett, who studies animal behavior at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. When faced with a housing crunch, he says, "hermit crabs use what they can, even human junk." Ecologist Tim Benton of the University of Stirling in Scotland wonders what the evolutionary significance of such a trend might be. "Plastic is a heck of a lot lighter" than a large mollusk shell, says Benton, and crabs that adopt lighter shells might be at an advantage if they're quicker on their feet.

posted by amberglow at 8:45 AM on November 21, 2004

Ads, ads everywhere. The world is a cavalcade of corporate shilling!

I recently picked up a copy of Asimov's Science Fiction magazine. In it, a prestigious sci-fi author (unfortunately, I forget who at the moment) was urging Americans to return to the moon.

Why? So that we can get our giant advertisements on it before the damn Chinese do.

And I say to myself, what a wonderful world...
posted by ticopelp at 9:08 AM on November 21, 2004

What a dreadfully bad idea.

Reminds me of that Adbusters article detailing how plastic wastes in the ocean have been broken down into microscopic particles - which get into algae and fish. Which we eat. (A different article on it.)

Good to know we're all part plastic.
posted by Count Ziggurat at 9:20 AM on November 21, 2004

...and for the bigger crabs, we have:
Tiny Plastic Huts!
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 9:25 AM on November 21, 2004

Why not just go to the junky seaside shell shops and buy up a bunch of the collected shells and just put them back where they go? Well, other than that if the shell shop owners figure out what you're doing...

If they've just got to do this, ceramic replicas of real shells seem like a much better idea to this couchsitter.
posted by Devils Rancher at 10:51 AM on November 21, 2004

I don't know any more about hermit crabs than anyone else posting to this thread. But I would say, through a mixture of worst-case scenarios and pure conjecture, that this is the stupidest, most harmful idea ever.
posted by Mayor Curley at 11:20 AM on November 21, 2004

I'm kind of worried at the level of detail in which some in this thread have been trying to warn us against this plan, considering that it doesn't take a particularly close reading of the article to realize how satirical it is. If you take a look at the domain, you'll realize that this article was published in Cabinet, which is a clearinghouse for this kind of artistic weirdness. While I'm not a fan of this piece in particular (both the premise and the execution seem a little underdeveloped), Cabinet itself is for the most part fantastic and worth the ten dollars that it costs. The last issue, for example, includes an interview with a curator of a paint-by-numbers exhibition, a photoessay about the abandoned Iraqi embassy in the former DDR, and a fantastically OCD cut-and-paste alphabetization of a front page of the New York Times (the Times New York). There really is nothing quite like it.
posted by monocyte at 11:26 AM on November 21, 2004

Being "arty" doesn't make a bad idea better.
posted by majick at 1:39 PM on November 21, 2004

I'm just worried that the plastic huts will be an easy way for the crabs to identify the less prosperous members of their species and in all likelihood, exclude them from the social intercourse. Perhaps they could develop some kind of mixed-income crab housing, which would attract young, urban crabs while offering the low-income members of the community a chance to become part of a truly diverse cultural exchange?
posted by idontlikewords at 1:42 PM on November 21, 2004

And of course it's creating an entitlement culture. Perhaps we need to find a way to help teach the crabs to help themselves.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 1:44 PM on November 21, 2004

Indeed! I think the work done by "Habitat for Huge Manatees" would be a good model for future development.
posted by idontlikewords at 1:53 PM on November 21, 2004

"Habitat for Huge Manatees"

love that! : >
posted by amberglow at 2:07 PM on November 21, 2004

I want a crab-made plastic house.
posted by The Great Big Mulp at 2:33 PM on November 21, 2004

In the tradition of "A Modest Proposal", I'm pretty sure this is a satire on the commodification of, you know, everything. The tone of the last line locks it down:

"The intended audience of the Hand Up Project is someone who, while walking on a beach, might pause to contemplate a slowly ambulating hermit crab, wearing on its back a tiny, man-made plastic house bearing a corporate logo."
posted by Coherence Panda at 5:28 PM on November 21, 2004

I think buying shells and returning them to the beach is a fine idea, but I must admit the only thing objectionable I see with these plastic shells is the frigging corporate logo idea; why not get the Sierra Club or some such group to take up a collection for it? (I'm also not sure if many crabs will take to the non-spiral shape so more R&D might help.) As for ceramic, that sounds too heavy; one of the benefits of plastic is that you can make it really thin and light, as illustrated by the cellophane on cigarette packs.

Learn compassion for the living. If some people have to start with hermit crabs before developing regard for lonely old men I say so be it. It's a frigging start anyway.
posted by davy at 9:09 PM on November 21, 2004

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