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The 40-Year-Old Hermit Crab

Meet Jonathan Livingston Crab, the world’s most venerable pet hermit crab.

Jonathan Livingston Crab. (Photo: Paul Yacovitch)

These days it’s normal to announce your pet’s birthday or adopt-iversary online. But it’s definitely not common for the number to be 40—especially if that pet is a hermit crab.

Many people have bought hermit crabs at boardwalk souvenir shops on beach vacations, once or maybe twice. The little crabs come in wire cages and often wear tackily-painted seashells, and most die after just a few weeks.

Carol Ann Ormes purchased her hermit crab in the summer of 1976, but the big difference between hers and everyone else’s is that Jonathan Livingston Crab is still going strong in 2016. As far as anyone knows, Jonathan holds the longevity record for a hermit crab in captivity.

Other hobbyists refer to Ormes with terms like “legend” and “the crab queen.” And in response to Jon’s anniversary announcement, in August, Ormes got dozens of replies of congratulations, both from online and real-life friends, including ones who were with her on that beach vacation at the Delaware shore four decades ago.

A close-up of a hermit crab on sand. (Photo: Dan Meineck/CC BY-ND 2.0)

Before that fateful trip to the beach, she’d never even heard of hermit crabs. When a fellow traveler told Ormes about how the creatures could change seashells, she was intrigued. Yet when that friend actually bought one, it wasn’t exactly love at first sight. “He was kind of strange,” says Ormes. And their other friend was terrified of him: “When we’d get back from dinner or something, she’d say, ‘You two go in first!’”

By the end of their two-week vacation, though, Ormes had decided she needed a hermit crab for herself. They stopped at a shop in Ocean City, Maryland, and bought Jon on their way home. 

When Ormes got Jon, there were no resources where she could research how to care for him. In fact, those little cages they come in are pretty much certain death, because they don’t retain enough moisture. Now you can buy heaters, thermometers and hygrometers to monitor the environment for cold-blooded pets, but she didn’t have any of that. “I could tell by putting my hand in there whether it was moist enough or warm enough,” she says.

Ormes figured out what was needed on her own by instinct and experimentation, starting with buying a glass tank and covering the bottom with fine gravel. At the same store where Ormes bought Jonathan Livingston Crab a new cage she also bought him a female companion. Crab Kate was with them for 35 years until she passed away in 2011. Zoos only started keeping statistics for invertebrates recently, but the lifespan of both crabs is believed to be record-setting.

An illustration of hermit crabs from 1857. (Photo: Biodiversity Heritage Library/CC BY 2.0)

Ormes’ professional background likely helped, too: she spent 38 years as chief of microbiology at a Washington-area hospital, and she’d worked with rats, mice, frogs, and toads. “I loved all those bugs, the frogs we used to have in the summer that barked like dogs,” she says. “I was primed for it.”  She was comfortable with a pet that needed proper humidity more than cuddling, and she was also okay with some of the other odd aspects of living with invertebrates.

Later, though, she discovered that Jonathan Livingston’s name was a bit off the mark. “They were both females, but I’ve never told Jon that,” she says. “You don’t know that till they get older.”

Jon was already almost 20 when Ormes retired and got her first computer. Her fame spread as she got online and started to connect with other hermit crab lovers all over the world, sharing her advice on care and feeding. For a while she helped run an online club, where she would chronicle the suspense of Jon and Kate’s molting process—a delicate time for hermit crabs, and often their downfall if the right conditions aren’t provided. The club is no longer active, but Ormes still sends around emails when Jon molts. In 2014 she wrote:

“This morning before breakfast I had the feeling that I should peek into Jonathan’s molting tub. And there he was, out from under his slate roof and almost finished eating the egg shell that I had put in there before he dug under. He looks absolutely beautiful, a very shiny toasty brown with furry (golden) legs and sharp toe points. He has new eye stalks and antennae along with his new legs and claws and upper body. His green turbo seashell is nice and shiny because he was in very fine gravel this year and not coconut fiber which takes the shine off his seashells.”

A hermit crab in an aquarium using a whelk shell. (Photo: Les Williams/CC BY-SA 2.0) 
But it’s not just other crab fans who’ve ended up coming along for the ride. Karen Riecks, who’s known Ormes since the 1990s, remembers getting emailed photos of the crabs each time they molted and moved to new shells. “I even went to a sea shell store with Mom Carol Ann to pick out possible new shells for her two babies,” she says. When Ormes retired and moved to Florida, Riecks offered to drive the crabs to Florida when Ormes was having trouble arranging for them to fly. And even the terrified friend from their beach trip has cared for Jon and Kate while Ormes traveled.

Her online renown has led to surprising encounters. One time, at the Delaware shore, she was showing pictures of her crabs to the staff at one of the shops when a customer came in and asked if she could see them too. “She started looking at them, and then she looked at me and said, ‘Are you Carol of Crabworks? I just wrote to you yesterday,’” Ormes says. “She was another crab person from Pennsylvania.”

At the community in Florida where she lives now, Jonathan Livingston Crab is well known, although people are sometimes a bit confused about what exactly he is. “People will say ‘How is your hermit frog? How is your snail? I’m sorry, I don’t mean snail, I mean your shrimp,’” Ormes says.

People who come to the apartment always ask to meet him, and he gets out to socialize too. She does presentations where she shows the tiny shells he lived in as a baby, then dramatically unveils him so people can see his current size. Recently he went on a visit to the community’s call center. “Everyone outside of that office came to see him,” she says. “He walked everywhere, even on their desks and keyboards and cables.”  

Painted shells for sale at Panama City Beach, Florida. (Photo: tink tracy/CC BY-ND 2.0)

Julie Smith, a neighbor, says, “I just love when she walks Jonathan down the corridor to come to visit.  It’s truly amazing to see him scurrying around the apartment.” And when Crab Kate died, a neighbor saw her looking around for a burial site: “He said, ‘it would be an honor for me to have her buried in my garden.’”

Jon’s great age is an amazing accomplishment, but can you really have a relationship with a crab? Ormes says Jon can tell her apart from other people, and he clearly seeks out her company. “He follows me places. When I’m out on the lanai [enclosed porch] on my computer he comes out there and climbs on my feet, if I go to the morning room he comes out there and walks around the table,” she says. “If I go out and leave him out of his tank, I come home and he’s at the front door.”

Ormes thinks that all that exercise outside the tank is one of the factors that kept her crabs healthy for so long. These days, Jonathan Livingston Crab keeps her active too, since he likes to get under the furniture. She’ll be 80 at the end of October, and, she says, “I still have to crawl around on my hands and knees looking for him.”

It’s one of the many things they’ve shared over the years—and his 40th anniversary treat was another. He got a lobster tail that he ate out of her hand. “He likes the exoskeleton part. He doesn’t want the meat,” she says. “I get to eat the meat.”