Jill Fehrenbacher


by , 04/07/06
filed under: Art, Modern Pets, Prefab Housing

Prefabrication isn’t just for people! Even tiny crustaceans can benefit from the economic efficiency of mass-produced standardized dwelling units. Case in point : Elizabeth Demaray’s fabulous conceptual art / environmental / (architectural?) design project called Hand-Up, which supplies needy hermit crabs with brand new plastic houses.

Why would a hermit crab need a plastic house? Like it’s distant human relative, the American hermit crab population is currently facing a massive housing shortage. There are simply not enough shells left on beaches anymore for hermit crabs to inhabit. Biologists routinely find crabs attempting to shelter themselves in glass jars, plastic containers and whatever other ill-fitting forms of refuse they can find. Scientists suspect that this sad situation might be due to pollution or over-collecting of seashells by humans. In order to try to remedy this environmental problem, (and perhaps draw social and cultural analogies?) conceptual artist cum bio-engineer Elizabeth Demaray has decided to give the little guys a “hand-up” by mass-producing tiny plastic houses for them.

I discovered this amazing project at the Grow conference, where Elizabeth Demaray was a speaker. Although the majority of the tactical presentations at the Grow conference were all fascinating – I must say that the beguilingly absurd hermit crab housing project stood out above and beyond all other presentations as the absolute highlight of the day – in fact, the highlight of my week.

Demaray spent a long time researching hermit crabs tastes and preferences in housing before drawing up her design for a light-weight plastic shell which can be rapidly produced on a stereolithography machine (aka 3D printer). Since the plastic in these new prefab designs is much lighter than the calcium carbonate of seashells, these new houses do not take as much energy for the little dudes to carry, and also have a larger internal volume-to-weight ratio that the crabs prefer. In addition to this, since plastic is not biodegradable, these new houses will potentially outlast the life-span of the crab itself, assuring many generations access to additional hand-me-down housing. Now we realize that the thought of small bits of non-biodegradeable plastic strewn about our beaches is somewhat troublesome, but the plastic garbage is already there, and we’d much rather see hermit crabs wandering around in these cute little house than in plastic bottle caps. We’re convinced that if and when the world is ready to house crabs en masse, it can be done in an environmentally friendly way.

Elizabeth Demaray has been testing these new houses in crab focus groups and has found that the crabs really like her designs. In her laboratory beta tests, 25% of hermit crabs opted to dump their old seashell house and upgrade to a new plastic house. Demaray believes that her designs will be even more popular in the wild, where hermit crabs grow much faster and the housing shortage is more dire.

Demaray acknowledges the slightly absurd implications of interspecies design in her writings and even based the design of her structure on the architecture of Giuseppe Terragni, an Italian Fascist active in the 1930s.

This Hand-up project is great news for the crabs, but what I really want to know is: Is this design going to produce a race of super-crabs who will terrorize our beaches?

If this thought doesn’t scare you, you may want to get involved. Demaray is currently looking for corporate sponsorship for this project, so if your business needs a memorable branding / PR stunt – look no further. I think the project could probably really use the money, but above and beyond all that – I think the artist really loves the idea of little hermit crabs running around with coporate logos on their back. And frankly, who wouldn’t? The enticement “Your logo here” takes on frightening new possibilities…

“While we recognize that this funding solution will increase the current proliferation of corporate logos on beaches and in other apparently pristine environments, we do feel that it is appropriate to utilize these insignias of global capital, and the wealth they symbolize, in the service of ameliorating environmental problems that have been caused by humans in the first place.”

The quirky artist’s other projects include knitting sweaters for plants, knitting sweaters for missiles, and creating snow-globes that re-enact the Donner Party expedition.

+ Hand-Up
+ Elizabeth Demaray

Thanks to AIGA’s Marc Alt for introducing me to this awesome project!

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  1. tonykw October 25, 2011 at 12:20 pm

    Can anyone provide research showing that there is an actual shortage of shells?

  2. partgypsy July 2, 2010 at 3:46 pm

    Sad that humans take shells for decoration while crabs who need them for homes have none, or yet are given plastic crap to use instead : (.

  3. Colm March 15, 2010 at 5:23 am

    totally stupid. ignores the rest of the ecosystem. The fact that rthe hermit crabs are in trouble should be used as an indication that there are a lot of other things going on that aren’t as obvious. Artificially supporting numbers of one species will not fix anything, just alter the problem. and with PLASTIC???

  4. somethingfishy2 March 8, 2010 at 7:52 pm

    It’s a terrible idea…even if it were to help the hermit crabs, it would be detrimental to the environment and the other creatures in the sea. Plastic, as I’m sure you all know is not biodegradable. It does however get broken down into very tiny particles, which are eaten by zooplankton. The plankton, with their bellies full of plastic then move up the food chain. Eventually, the plastic makes its way all the way up to birds, which ultimately end up dying because their bellies are so full of plastic that there is no room for nutritional food. Don’t get me wrong, I’m an animal lover, but people need to learn to stay back and stop trying to fix every single little problem. Instead of trying to fix problems that we didn’t create, we should be focusing on finding sustainable energy sources and reversing global warming.

  5. Zenalisa March 4, 2010 at 11:20 pm

    It’s a great idea to try and make shells for the wild crabs, they need some homes badly since all the real shells are being taken away.
    But i really think this design needs some work. If they were modeled after REAL SHELLS and made of something that the crab couldn’t accidentally eat (they will chip away at their shells for a better fit,) it would work. These seem really square and they don’t coil very far, which is something that crabs aren’t built for. The need to be rounder, and not so transparent, and made of something smoother. maybe dark, non-reflective glass.
    But my kudos too you for trying to help out :) it’ll work way better if they’re more like real shells though.

  6. ALMK December 3, 2009 at 6:41 pm

    I think they should design them more like artificial shells. by the looks of it, it doesn’t look like an abdomen could fit in there comfortable. I own many crabs, and I think the crabs in the wild should have just as good choices as the ones in captivity.
    crabs are also picky from time to time, so different openings, weights, would be nice.. different styles. its like clothes shopping to them.

    also they can’t create a new race of super-crabs – unless the plastic homes some how start breeding with the crabs – because the ‘Giant coconut’ crab, when it cannot find any more shells that are large enough to house it, it goes under, molts, and comes up with an armored abdomen. they’ve been around for awhile.

  7. meldamiriel December 3, 2009 at 12:52 pm

    No, no, no. A thousand times no.
    I would NEVER give these to my hermit crabs and I’ll tell you why.

    First of all, hermit crabs are notorious for chipping away at their shells to make them fit their bodies more comfortably. If a hermit crab can chip it – they’ll eat it. This is fine with natural shells since they’re made of calcium carbonate and hermit crabs need a good amount of calcium to continue to molt and grow.

    The chemicals in plastic are not good for hermit crabs – at all. If they chip away at the plastic and eat it it could potentially harm the hermit crab.

    This is why it is also not a good idea to give a hermit crab a painted shell.

    I would advise everyone to stay away from anything other than natural shells.

    Please check for more information on the proper care of hermit crabs.

  8. hermies4arran July 17, 2009 at 12:41 pm

    I’m almost ashamed to admit it, but after reading about the plastic design, I’d be willing to let my hermies investigate some plastic shell homes….

  9. LeFrench August 23, 2008 at 7:46 pm

    No more shells?! Recycle escargot shells from French restaurants! Dameet!

  10. Phill February 22, 2008 at 12:34 pm

    I once saw a Scandinavian crab in wooden flat pack shell. The natural world is a magical place filled with wonder.

  11. Betty Pugh April 11, 2007 at 8:01 am

    This is darling! And such good research, too.

  12. Chloe March 25, 2007 at 3:37 am

    I once found a hermit crab on a beach in Costa Rica that was using a toothpaste lid.

  13. Erika November 23, 2006 at 9:28 am

    Is this really safe? I mean plastic homes for all naturals creatures. I wouldnt put my hermit crabs in one.

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