Hermit crabs as model species for investigating the behavioural responses to pollution


  • Pollution can impact behaviour directly and by disrupting cognition.
  • Individual responses can cascade to populations, communities and ecosystems.
  • Hermit crabs provide a globally distributed model for investigating info-disruption
  • Hermit crab behaviour is affected by climate change, chemicals, noise and light.
  • These effects can be readily studied across a wide range of behavioural contexts.


Human impacts on the environment affect organisms at all levels of biological organisation and ultimately can change their phenotype. Over time, phenotypic change may arise due to selection but individual phenotypes are also subject to change via genotype × environment interactions. In animals, behaviour is the most flexible aspect of phenotype, and hence the most liable to change across environmental gradients including exposure to pollution. Here we review current knowledge on the impacts of pollution, broadly defined to include the release of substances, energy, and the effects of carbon emissions, on the behaviour of a highly studied group, the globally distributed hermit crabs. We first show how their obligate association with empty gastropod shells underpins their use as model organisms for the study of resource-assessment, contest, and risk-coping behaviours. Intense study of hermit crabs has advanced our understanding of how animals use information, and we discuss the ways in which pollutants can disrupt the cognitive processes involved. We then highlight current studies of hermit crabs, which paint a clear picture of behavioural changes due to multiple pollutants. Impacts on behaviour vary across pollutants and entire suites of behaviours can be influenced by a single pollutant, with the potential for interactive and cascade effects. Hermit crabs offer the opportunity for detailed behavioural analysis, including application of the repeated measures animal-personality framework, and they are highly amenable to experimental manipulations. As such, we show how they now provide a model system for studying the impacts of pollution on behaviour, yielding insights broadly applicable across animal diversity.

Briffa M., Arnott G. & Hardege J. D., 2024. Hermit crabs as model species for investigating the behavioural responses to pollution. Science of the Total Environment 906: 167360. doi: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2023.167360. Article.

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