The ghost crabs that inhabit the beaches of the Carolinas are in the midst of an evolutionary change: they are evolving from marine to land creatures, which explains why one of them was living in the arid, higher-altitude area of the beach, on the nearside of the dune, just below the deck of our rented condominium during vacation this year. They did once live in the ocean, but are now living just beside it. They cannot go too far away from the water because they have to wet their gills twice a day. That is according to the guidebook that we bought after we noticed the ghost crab living below us.
We would never have noticed the ghost crab down there, three floors below us, sitting still in the bright afternoon sun, if one of us hadn’t accidentally thrown a wet bathing suit off the deck and startled it into moving. The upper half of their shells are camouflaged to resemble the off-white/yellowish sand in which they build their homes, so, it was virtually invisible. But, when the bathing suit hit the ground, it prompted the ghost crab to move in and examine the thing, which is when we saw it and then called everyone over to the deck to see. But, even after you know where it’s at, you still have to pay very close attention, because if it stops moving while you’re fighting over the binoculars, you can lose it against—its camouflage is that good. Then you’ll have to throw beer cans at the last place you thought you saw it until it gets frightened enough to run back to its hole. And when they do run, watch out, because they are fast! They’ll run quick as a flash into one of the little three-inch diameter holes that dot the dunes, and then you have to sit quietly and wait several minutes until they get the courage to come back out again.
It’s not only running that they do fast. They can burrow down several feet into the wet sand of the beach-side of the dune way faster than you can dig after them with a paddleball paddle, as we found out the next day. So, even if you do manage to corner one of them between a chair and a garbage can, it’ll just go down and you’ll never catch it. If you do manage to see one up close, you may notice that it isn’t nearly as big as you might have thought from the deck. Its one-and-a-half-to-two-inch square body is made to look bigger with its long, spindly legs and large pinching claws, but don’t be afraid: the guidebook says those claws are relatively harmless.
But seeing a ghost crab during the day is rare anyway, since they’re usually more active at night. If you pay very close attention to the moon-streaked shoreline when you go out to smoke drugs after dark, you can catch little glimpses of them scurrying this way or that, on their way to the water to wet their gills, or—in early summer—to deposit their eggs into the free-floating zoöplankton of the ocean, where the larvae undergo several life-form changes before crawling out to land as mature ghost crabs, when, according to a man who runs a kayak rental shop, they are very easy to catch with a bucket. However, ghost crabs are not often eaten by people in the Carolinas; they are more often eaten by sea gulls, raccoons, and the kayak guy’s dog.
Although you’d think they might be scavengers, since most other crabs are, ghost crabs prefer their food alive. They hunt small animals like coquina clams, sea turtle hatchlings, and mole crabs. (It may seem odd that one type of crab would feed on another type, but mole crabs are not actually crabs at all. They are another form of crustacean, like lobsters and shrimp, and can be easily picked from the sand beneath receding waves—where they bury themselves to safely eat the microscopic plankton the waves bring in—and held in the palm of your hand. They don’t have pinchers and resemble large beetles, ranging in size from half-an-inch to two inches, so they are perfect for throwing at friends reading books in the dry sand. If you don’t pay attention, though, they’ll scurry right off your hand and burrow themselves back into the sand. But don’t worry: you can catch another two to five with the next wave if you use both hands.) Apparently, ghost crabs aren’t quick to trust mole crabs that are left as offering just outside their holes in the dry sands, because you can crouch down there for a long time and they won’t budge. They will sometimes eat dead flesh, we have found, because if you get tired of waiting and go away after the mole crab dies, and then eventually check back, that mole cab will be gone.
One quick endnote: don’t bother attempting to dig down into the lair beneath the ghost crab’s hole, even with a real store-bought shovel, unless you don’t mind digging more than four feet down and being talked to by the condominium people.