Have you ever lived in a kind of dingy place with an unclean kitchen? Maybe a college apartment or skuzzy motel? Remember some night, flipping on the light and seeing dozens of cockroaches scurry away from the light? Imagine that, except instead of roaches, here it’s crabs.
Big ones, too. From quarter- to hockey-puck-sized, and anywhere in between. There are several species of terrestrial crabs in Costa Rica that breed in water, and along the coast, especially on these narrow slopes along the Peninsula, they are extremely abundant. During the day, they usually hide under debris or in burrows betrayed by small piles of dirt, like prickly gophers. They do very well around human structures, where food and water are plentiful. At night they come out in force. You’ve got your hermit crabs, all different sizes and colors that awkwardly drag themselves along, and are surprisingly adept climbers. You’ve got your freshwater crabs, dark, quick, more common in dead leaves. But mostly you’ve got these guys: the Halloween crab. Seriously, that’s its name. It fits, too. This thing looks like a joke. Shiny black carapace, legs bright orange with purple claws. Looks like it was made of gummi worms. When they were designing animals, they ran out of normal colors for this guys and used what was left. This is the tacky monster truck of animals.
They get everywhere. Once the sun goes down, anything not elevated by at least six inches of smooth surface is fair game. Food scraps, specimens, leather—you name it, they’ll have their claws in it. For something with a hard shell, they can squeeze through pretty tight spots. Like the hermits, they can climb. Both of which I learned the hard way.
One of my first nights here, it was hot and I kicked off my sheets and accidentally let it hang down to the floor. At some ungodly hour I woke up with a crab in my bed.
Now I have been awakened by a giant cockroach on my face. I have had stinging ants in my bed. And I tell you this was worse. It was cold. It was sharp, yet clammy. It pinched and made this awful clicking, rasping sound as it scrabbled between me and the sheet. In the dark, fearing a scorpion, I leapt up with a shriek in my throat, trying to kill it without touching it. I grabbed my pillow and began punching the crustacean through the padding like the world’s dirtiest pillow fighter. Then I tumbled out of bed and pawed around for the light.
Then I saw that it was not a scorpion, and also was not dead. Not entirely. I had partially crushed it, and it still moved, dragging itself along with only half its legs, twitching, and leaking a yellowish fluid on the sheets.
To me, all crabs look grumpy. I have yet to see a friendly crab. They are just generally unpleasant to look at. But I had to pity this thing. It meant no harm, and in my fear and panic I had not only made it suffer but also somehow made it even more repulsive. So I finished it off as quick as I could, wiped it off onto the floor leaving behind a rancid stain, and tried to go back to sleep, my only thought being how to explain to the staff that the yellow streak on the sheet was not my own urine.
Less than an hour later I awoke again to a familiar scratching sound, only now there were more of them. Moving carefully this time, I switched on the light from the safety of my bed. There, on the floor, were maybe a dozen Halloween crabs dismantling their slain cousin where I had scraped him onto the floor.
Which drives home an important lesson on the jungle. You can’t stop life here. If you bring about death, it only invites something more to clean up the mess. The nutrients get instantly recycled—nothing gets to just sit there. And nowhere is safe from the process. You don’t have a sacred bubble. Even in the field stations, in a building with beds and electricity you are still subject to lively, natural forces. Doors and layers are, at best, delays or illusions. You have to share your space and your food.
But I’m always careful now to keep blankets off the floor. God help me, I’ll share my room, but no more crabs in my bed. Please.