By Terri Estes

Who hasn’t dug a little hole in the sand with their foot while standing at the shoreline, just to see how many sand crabs you could unearth? We all have! But have you ever really thought about these tiny little crabs with a coat of armor that sort of resemble an armadillo? Well, they are pretty cool creatures and also very important to our ecosystem!

Sand crabs spend most of their time buried in shifting sand. They feed in the swash zone, the area of breaking waves. To feed, the crabs burrow backwards into the sand until only their eyes and first antennae are showing. As the wave rolls over them, the sand crab unfolds a second pair of feathery-like antennae and sweeps them through the water to collect tiny plankton.

While most crabs can move in any direction — forwards, backwards and sideways — the sand crab can only travel backwards. They also lack claws on their front legs like most other types of crabs. Some people refer to them as sand moles or sand fiddlers, but here in the Rockaways, everyone calls them sand crabs.

If you find one with orange on its belly, you’ve found a female sand crab with a case of eggs ready for depositing. Males tend to be smaller than females.

Their sandy color makes for a good disguise but shore birds, sea birds and many kinds of fish love to eat these little crustaceans. Sand crabs are a very popular fishing bait in the southern states such as Florida, but here in the Northeast, striped bass, fluke and flounder love to gobble them up.

Not only are sand crabs a valuable source of food to our wildlife, but they are also used by scientists to monitor toxins such as DDT in our waters. Laboratories also use sand crabs in neurological studies because the crabs’ tails have the largest sensory neurons found in any animal on the planet.

So the next time you find yourself digging that little hole with your foot at the water’s edge, give that strange looking little critter you just uncovered a nod and a thank you!

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