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The Green Life: Printing (Yes, Printing) Homes for Hermit Crabs

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October 25, 2011

Printing (Yes, Printing) Homes for Hermit Crabs

A hermit crab with his new homeThese days there aren’t enough hermit-crab shells to go around. The competition is so stiff that the critters are finding homes in chewed pen caps, broken glass bottles, film canisters, and mini tea kettles.

Project Shellter hopes to relax the hermit housing market by introducing the crabs to plastic alternatives. A collaboration between 3D-printer manufacturer MakerBot Industries and designer Miles Lightwood (a.k.a. TeamTeamUSA), Project Shellter operates on the concept of open-source hardware: Anyone with the necessary software can design a crab-friendly shell and post its printer code to MakerBot forums. Says MakerBot cofounder Bre Pettis, “This is not about what one person can do. It’s about what a whole mass of people can do. When you have a MakerBot, you have a machine that can make almost anything.”

The printer in question has a retro-fabulous name: It's called the Thing-O-Matic, and looks like an open-sided box of antique machinery (picture Wall-E’s second cousin). According to Pettis, “it’s ideally suited to producing the complex snail shells that hermit crabs prefer.”

Still, there are hurdles. Right now, the project is confined to "crabitats" in Brooklyn and Los Angeles. In time, however, it could expand to the wild, even though enviros are uneasy with the idea of more plastic on beaches, even for a good cause. Pettis and Lightwood have toyed with the idea of using biodegradable materials, but this raises the unsettling image of hermit crabs cowering as their homes crumble around them.

Dr. Katherine Bulinski, the project's scientific consultant, is excited about the possibilities and says that the crabs “like to explore different shells.” Like humans, they enjoy feeling out a few homes before deciding on the perfect one. Size, shape, and weight are considerations. One advantage, then, of the open-source model is that it helps the people at Project Shellter provide a variety of options for crabs to choose from. During the endeavor's first week, they made an important discovery: More than 90% of snails have dextral (right-handed) shells, while hermits want sinistral (left-handed) shells. Down the road, Bulinski envisions a world in which “you can design the perfect shell for your pet crab.”

Wild hermits are known to conduct a highly organized passing-down of shells called a synchronous vacancy chain. When a crab finds a shell that’s too big, it waits nearby for other crabs to gather. Once enough are present, they line up by size, clasping onto each other’s backs, and as the largest crab moves into the vacant shell, each crab moves up behind it.

This amazing ritual could become rare as the number of available shells decreases. But if Project Shellter goes as planned, more indoor crabs will be provided with synthetic shells, and more organic shells will be left empty in the surf. Instead of shacking up in broken bottles, hermit crabs will find natural homes into which their curved bodies fit comfortably.

-- Jake Abrahamson / image courtesy MakerBot Industries

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