Text and Photo by Peter Vankevich
If you spend any amount of time walking on the beach of Ocracoke, you will have no doubt noticed holes of various dimensions. You may also well observe that there may be piles of sand around them and distinct animal tracks. The strong likelihood is that you are looking at a burrow of an Atlantic Ghost Crab (Ocypode quadrata).
Ghost crabs are fascinating creatures. The name derives from their pale color and crepuscular and nocturnal activity as well as their stealthy ability to disappear from the beach in a flash – their Latin name Ocypode means “swift-footed.” These crabs are primarily terrestrial and they need just a bit of water to keep hydrated. As the sun sets, you may see them scurry to the water and wait for a wave to cover them and then rush back to the dunes. They also lay their eggs in the water.
So about those holes. Ghost crabs dig burrows in the sand and use them for many useful functions. If you walk the beach in the evening and start to approach one or more, you may see them warily start to observe you. At this point, in their eyes you are a predator and once you violate their comfort distance, they will quickly seek safety by disappearing into a burrow.
Natural predators that may drive them underground include gulls, shorebirds, mink, and raccoons; and yes, we are seeing raccoons on Ocracoke these days. The burrows also provide shelter from the sun and the crabs will sometimes plug the top with sand to keep out the heat or the cold. They also use them to hibernate during the winter. There seems to be a general trend that smaller ghost crabs tend to burrow closer to the water and the larger one up in the dunes. Observe the holes and see if the larger ones are more likely to be farther away from the water.
If you are considering digging up a burrow to see a ghost crab, you might want to think about the classic Louis Sachar novel “Holes” that was made into a pretty good movie. The story line is kids who have been in trouble are sent to a reform school misnamed as Camp Green Lake where they are handed shovels to dig holes all day long and to report anything unusual they may find. I don’t believe in spoilers so I would encourage you to read the book or check out the movie if you haven’t already done so to see why they do this.
I mention these literary diggings because ghost crab burrows can be up to 4 feet long and contain extra shafts. You are far better off to take a post dinner or predawn visit to the beach if you want to see ghost crabs. In preparation, scout out a location on the beach or in the dunes where you see lots of holes. You will find it’s worth the effort.
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