When the sun sets and the beach quiets, tiny, skittering spectral creatures begin to peek out of their sandy burrows.
Locals know and love the ghost crabs, and a favorite pastime of Carolina beach locals and visitors alike is “hunting” these creeping crustaceans.
“Have you walked down the beach at night and seen movement out of the corner of your eye? Have you heard a slight skittering noise as the wind starts to die down? You may have witnessed the creature that haunts the sands of Cape Hatteras National Seashore — the Atlantic ghost crab!” the Cape Hatteras National Seashore posted on its Facebook page on Wednesday.
The ghost crabs were once referred to as “an occult, secretive alien from the ancient depths of the sea,” according to the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.
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Most ghost crabs are generally nocturnal in part to avoid predators such as sea birds. They get their name from their pale coloring — nearly translucent white or gray or sandy with big black eyes on stalks. The crabs can also alter their color slightly to match their environment, according to the SCDNR.
While they may have once been referred to as aliens from deep beneath the waves, ghost crabs actually spend very little time in the ocean — preferring instead their sandy burrows, according to seashore officials. The crabs come out “after dark to search for food. They are omnivores and will eat both plants and animals, even other ghost crabs.”
Ghost crabs belong to the same family as fiddler crabs and there are about 20 species of ghost crabs worldwide, according to the SCDNR. They are usually about 2 inches long across their backs as adults.
Atlantic ghost crabs are the one member of the ghost crab family found on Carolina shores, though these crabs can be found up and down the East Coast of the U.S. and into South America, according to the SCDNR.
But while ghost crabs are plentiful on Carolina shores, they are also notorious for their shyness and are sometimes difficult to spot. Small holes in the sand are a telltale sign.
“Shy, swift and sandy in color, these adorable natives of Currituck and Corolla share the beach with us each year, even though many of us don’t realize it. We’re not going to say they’re ‘crabby’ per say, but these little guys are certainly not social,” according to the Currituck, North Carolina Department of Travel and Tourism.
You’re most likely to see ghost crabs during the summer, since they tend to close up their burrows and stay inside during the colder part of the year. After dark on a low-traffic beach is the best time to spot the shy specters, according to OuterBanks.com’s guide to “hunting” them.
“Ghost crabs are essentially harmless, and will very quickly shy away from humans. At the very worst, a ghost crab hunter may suffer a toe or hand nibble if they get too close, (a bite that will barely break the skin),” according to OuterBanks.com.
Those intent on spotting the crabs should dress in dark clothes and carry a flashlight that can briefly “freeze” a crab in place in time to get a good view. Tread quietly and use caution.
Most importantly, don’t touch the little crabs — for their sake and yours.
“Whatever you do, don’t attempt to poke, prod, or pick up a ghost crab. Although clearly not fatal, a ghost crab pinch can still be a little painful,” OuterBanks.com and other guides suggest.
While ghost crabs are not included in federal lists of threatened or endangered species, that doesn’t mean they don’t face serious challenges.
As more development takes place on Carolina shores, the ghost crab’s habitat is shrinking. More people on beaches means the shy creatures have fewer opportunities to live undisturbed, according to the SCDNR.
Beach renourishment also has led to the loss of ghost crabs on North Carolina’s coast, research shows.
“A study conducted in North Carolina ... found significant deleterious effects on ghost crab populations resulting from beach nourishment and bulldozing activities on eroding beaches,” according to the SCDNR. “These erosion control measures are readily permitted and widely practiced on barrier islands in the southeastern states for that reason, erosion control measures present a potential but undefined threat to the well-being of ghost crab populations” in the Carolinas.
Ghost crabs are an important part of the Carolina coastal ecosystem, and when they thrive, it’s a good indicator of the health of the overall coastal environment, according to the SCDNR.