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Scientists raise concerns after observing 'heartbreaking' behavior of hermit crabs: 'We are living in a different era'

"Animals are making use of what is available to them."

"Animals are making use of what is available to them."

Photo Credit: iStock

Plastic trash in the ocean is a long-standing issue. Experts estimate there are over 170 trillion pieces of plastic in the ocean, including harmful fragments of microplastic as well as larger pieces of trash that often injure wildlife. 

Now, researchers have discovered an interaction between marine life and plastic: hermit crabs are using pieces of trash as shells, the BBC reported.

What's happening?

Normally, hermit crabs protect their naturally soft bodies by finding and inhabiting a discarded snail shell. However, like many marine animal populations, snail populations are declining and snail shells are getting harder to find, according to the BBC.

But what's easy to find is trash: discarded plastic lids, pieces of light bulbs, and other "artificial shells." So, hermit crabs use these instead, just like the one in this TikTok video.

Researchers combed through social media and found photos of 386 individual hermit crabs using artificial shells, the BBC reported.

"According to our calculations, 10 out of the 16 species of land hermit crabs in the world use this type of shelter and it's been observed in all tropical regions of the Earth," University of Warsaw professor Marta Szulkin told the BBC. "When I first saw these pictures, I felt it was heart-breaking. At the same time, I think we really need to understand the fact that we are living in a different era and animals are making use of what is available to them."

Why does it matter if hermit crabs use plastic shells?

In general, the fact that hermit crabs are practicing this behavior worldwide paints a bleak picture of just how polluted the ocean is. The BBC reported that the amount of plastic trash in the ocean could almost triple by the year 2040, and it's already having a huge impact on marine life, including fish that people rely on for food.

It's unknown what this development could do to the hermit crabs. 

"What we don't know is how much the element of novelty might affect them — and whether the crabs will fight over artificial plastic shells," Szulkin explained. She told the BBC that the plastic could be easier for weaker crabs to carry, but the researchers also worried it might be harmful in the long run.

What's being done about plastic trash in the ocean?

Professor Mark Miodownik of University College London told the BBC, "Just like the hermit crabs, we should be reusing plastics much more, instead of discarding it."

Efforts are being made to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and recycle the discarded plastic.

You can help by choosing reusable items instead of single-use plastics whenever possible.

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