Hermit crabs killed after becoming trapped in plastic rubbish on two remote islands

Bonnie Christian
Hermit crabs trapped in a plastic bottle: PA

More than half a million hermit crabs have died after becoming trapped in plastic rubbish on two remote islands, researchers said.

On the Cocos (Keeling) Islands in the Indian Ocean, scientists recorded 508,000 trapped crabs across a range of sites, and on Henderson Island in the Pacific, 61,000 crabs were found.

The numbers falling foul of debris such as plastic bottles is equivalent to one to two crabs per square metre of beach, a significant percentage of the population.

The problem is likely to be widespread on islands worldwide, seriously affecting hermit crab populations, the researchers said.

Hermit crabs emit a smell when they die that signals to other crabs their shell is free (AFP via Getty Images)

The study was led by the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies (IMAS) at the University of Tasmania and included researchers from London’s Natural History Museum and the Two Hands Project community science organisation.

The researchers have previously revealed that Cocos and Henderson Islands are littered with millions of pieces of plastic.

Now their research has found that the piles of plastic pollution on island beaches create both a physical barrier for the crabs to navigate and a series of potential deadly traps.

Hermit crabs do not have a shell of their own, instead seeking out available empty shells.

Dr Alex Bond, from the Natural History Museum, said: “The problem is quite insidious really, because it only takes one crab.

“Hermit crabs do not have a shell of their own, which means that when one of their compatriots die, they emit a chemical signal that basically says ‘there’s a shell available’ attracting more crabs who fall into the containers and die, who then send out more signals that say there are more shells available.

“Essentially it is this gruesome chain reaction.”

He added: “We all need to consider our actions, especially in relation to the purchase of single use plastic products as we are proving time and time again that the cost of this convenience is immense.”

High concentrations of plastic debris are being found on beaches worldwide, where hermit crabs could be expected to encounter the same problems as on the islands studied.

Hermit crabs play an important role in tropical environments by aerating and fertilising soil, dispersing seeds and removing detritus, and are also a key part of marine nature systems.

Losses of hermit crabs on a global scale would cause problems for ecosystems, the researchers warn.

IMAS researcher Dr Jennifer Lavers, who led the study said: “These results are shocking but perhaps not surprising, because beaches and the vegetation that fringes them are frequented by a wide range of wildlife.

“It is inevitable that these creatures will interact with and be affected by plastic pollution, although ours is one of the first studies to provide quantitative data on such impacts.”

The study has been published open access in the Journal of Hazardous Materials.

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