An earlier version of this article appeared in the July 2008 Ocracoke Observer.
Text and photos by Peter Vankevich
No, this is probably not one of the ghosts that you’ll hear about if you take Philip and Amy Howard’s intriguing evening Ghost Tours. They recount stories how, in the olden days, Ocracokers handled life and death; sometimes under strange circumstances which have created legends.
To see these particular ghosts, you should head out to the beach, preferably at dawn or dusk. These are the rulers of the dunes, known mysteriously as the ghost grab (Ocypode quadrata). Its name originates from its pale color and ability to blend into its surroundings; easily seen one moment and with a slight movement disappear as it dives into one of its burrowed holes or simply digs into the sand.
One fascinating characteristic is their large dark eyes that protrude in a periscope appearance which permits them 360 degree vision.
For a crab, they can be fast (its Latin name, quadrata, means swift-footed) and they have been clocked at speeds up to 10 miles per hour.
One June morning on my way to the Hatteras ferry, about one mile from the terminal, two ghost crabs scuttled across the road from the sound side to the dunes at what I would guess was close to that speed.
Ghost crabs are omnivorous and their diet covers everything from sand fleas, Portuguese Man-O-Wars to turtle hatchlings. They are primarily nocturnal feeders, making them less likely to encounter predators such as gulls, herons, egrets and shorebirds. Raccoons are one of their nocturnal enemies.
During a day at the beach, even if you don’t see one, you should have little difficulty seeing their tracks and mounds of sand next to their burrows where they spend the day. These burrows may go as deep as four feet and on hot days, these crabs keep cool by covering up the burrow opening with sand. They also use them for winter hibernation.
Unlike most of their cousins around the island, these are semiterrestrial crabs that have adapted to living on land. They are able to extract the moisture from below the surface sand. At night, they scurry down to the water for a dip, feeding and rehydration. If you go to the beach at night, you will see lots of ghost crabs skittering about.
One early summer morning on the beach near the Pony Pasture, the ghost crabs were plentiful. The larger ones tended to be farther from the ocean and closer to the dunes. Catching my eye was a moving brightly colored object. As I looked closer it was a ghost crab dragging an orange slice, eventually taking it into its burrow.
Two large scurrying ghost crabs bumped each other — then stopped. I watched their motionless stare-off and wondered if they were communicating their thoughts on sand moisture, barometric pressure or the possibility of forthcoming numerically categorized storms.
Then again, perhaps it was just my hyper-anthropomorphic imagination running amok and they were engaged in nothing more than scuttlebutt.