Earlier this month, Holly Cantere looked up to see a 4.8-pound coconut crab walking down a busy street in her suburban Honolulu neighborhood.
"It just kept walking, like there was not a care in the world when it crossed the street,” she told KHON-2. “Everybody slowed down like it was a pedestrian.”
The largest terrestrial arthropods in the world, coconut crabs can grow as big as nine pounds and three feet wide, and they can live as long as 120 years. They've been known to shred trash cans, eat cats and tear up gardens. They’re so avaricious that one theory to explain Amelia Earhart’s demise says she didn’t drown, but crashed on the remote Nikumaroro atoll and was eaten by coconut crabs that then scattered her bones.
They got their name because while mere humans need a machete to tear into a coconut, the crab's strong pincers can easily crack one.
Although they are native to islands throughout the Pacific and Indian oceans, coconut crabs (or "robber crabs" because they scamper off with your stuff) are seldom found in the continental United States and are considered an invasive species in Hawaii.
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This coconut crab was spotted crossing a busy street in Honolulu, Hawaii, on Dec. 21, 2014. It was the first coconut crab captured there since 1989.
Looking for help, Cantere bravely packed the neighborhood interloper in a box and called the state’s department of agriculture. The crab is now quarantined -- nobody knows where it came from or how it got there -- and once cleared, it will end up in an exhibit at the Honolulu Zoo.
“It’s a rare event that anyone finds a coconut crab in Hawaii,” Robert Toonen, an associate researcher at the University of Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, told The Huffington Post. The last time the department of agriculture found one in public in Hawaii was in 1989. (Toonen surmised it was probably meant for someone’s holiday dinner and escaped; coconut crabs that eat a diet heavy in coconuts are reportedly tasty.)
According to Toonen, an infestation of coconut crabs in Hawaii would spell disaster for native species of birds and plants. He said they “eat any rotting material that falls to the ground, including leaves, coconuts and carrion … if they’re looking for food, they’ll eat anything they can put their claws on. A lot of the native species here are already under threat from other invasive species, so having one more nonnative predator is a concern.”
Coconut crabs can grow as big as a trash can, as this one reportedly did outside a construction site.
While coconut crabs aren’t allowed in Hawaii today, a 2011 study published by the scientific journal Plos One shows that a different species of endemic land crabs -- Geograpsus severnsi -- once roamed the forested mountains there. Though smaller -- the size of a human hand -- these crabs were discovered to have lived in Hawaii until settlers (and their pigs, dogs and rats) hunted them into extinction.
Clarification: Language has been adjusted to specify more accurately the native range of the coconut crab species.