Taiwan’s hermit crabs are in crisis. The little nomadic creatures have been deprived of the shells from which they make their homes. Overcollection of seashells by humans has led to a dire shortage of would-be living pods for the crustaceans, who lack a natural carapace and must search for a surrogate—ideally, a shell but, more recently, plastic debris. Last week, a Taiwanese conservation group petitioned the Internet for shells to save the island’s hermit crab population.
Perhaps Japanese artist Aki Inomata can send some of her artful, building-themed shells to the rescue? Her project, "Why not hand over a shelter to hermit crabs?" certainly seems sympathetic to the cause. Using 3-D modeling, and with collaborative input from her pet crabs, Inomata developed a series of custom micro-habitats that would be the envy of any evicted arthropods.
Inomata’s bespoke shells are crowned with tiny buildings and miniature cities. Delicately rendered in transparent plastic, they’re designed primarily as aesthetic statements, which Inomata ties back to concepts of identity, adaptation, and place. The decorative forms mimic the architecture of Japan, as well as archetypal structures like Parisian bâtiments, Dutch windmills, and Manhattan skyscrapers. She tells Co.Design: "I connected my study of the hermit’s transformation to the self-adaptation of humans, whether it be in acquiring a new nationality, immigrating, or relocating." In this way, the shells act like billboards, borne on the backs of the unwitting critters that display their cryptic messages.
In addition to the project’s artistic dimensions, Inomata also intended it to have practical value. She created the shells to be adopted by hermit crabs and used CT scanning to ensure that the picky crustaceans could, in fact, live in one of them. "Hermit crabs are selective in choosing their shelters," the artist says, which meant her designs had to appear attractive to prospective occupants. She was able to create 3-D images of natural shells that helped her closely approximate their general proportions and depth, thus upping the livability quotient of her plastic exoskeletons.
When hermit crabs outgrow their shells, they’re forced to search for new ones. If they come across other crabs, the rubbery arthropods are known to exchange seashells, almost like sports players swapping jerseys at the end of a match. "They could look completely different depending on the shell they choose," Inomata explains. In her ideal scenario, two aesthetically inclined crabs do the swapping; the act, if it were ever to happen, is fraught with existential connotations while also fulfilling a functional need.
But the final test: If given the choice, would Inomata’s hermit crabs choose her shells over natural alternatives? "One day," she says, "I witnessed one of my hermit crabs moved into my shelter after he had been torn between a natural seashell and my plastic one." That day, the new home-lodger scuttled away with a shell made up to look like a Moroccan mud city. The stay proved short, however, as the crab eventually appeared to second guess his decision and abandoned the shell. He probably should have slept on it.