My Tropic Isle, by E. J. Banfield

Chapter XV

Barrier Reef Crabs

“Reasoning, oft admire

How Nature, wise and frugal, could commit

Such dispositions with superfluous hand.”

MILTON.

So much of the time of the Beachcomber is spent sweeping with hopeful eyes the breadths of the empty sea, policing the uproarious beaches, overhauling the hordes of roguish reefs, and the medley concealed in cosy caves by waves that storm at the bare mention of the rights of private property, that he cannot avoid casual acquaintance with the scores of animated things which ceaselessly woo him from the pursuit of his calling. Should he be inclined to ignore the boldly obvious distractions from serious affairs, there are others, not readily discernible, which have singularly direct and successful methods of fixing attention upon themselves.

Roseate or sombre your humour as you patrol the reefs, it is liable to be changed in a flash into clashing tints by inadvertent contact with a warty ghoul of a sea-urchin, a single one of whose agonising spines never fails to bring you face to face with one of the vividest realities of life. A slim but shapely mollusc known as Terebellum or augur, to mention another conceited little disturber of your meditations, stands on its spire in the sand, and screws as you tread, cutting, a delightfully symmetrical hole in the sole of your foot, and retaining the core — perfect as that of a diamond drill.

Many and varied are the inconspicuous creatures with office to remind the barefooted trespasser that no charter of the isles and their wrecks is flawless, and that they are prepared to inflict curious pains and limping penalties for every incautious intrusion on their domicile. Few of the denizens of the unkempt coral gardens are more remarkable than the crabs. By reef and shore I have come literally into contact with so many quaint specimens, and they have so often afforded exhilarating diversion and sent brand-new startling sensations scurrying along such curious and complicated byways, that courtesy bids me tender a portrait of one of the family which (in appearance only) may be described as a dandy, and to tell of two or three others whose intimacy is invariably enlivening.

Shall I dispose of the dandy first? Perhaps it were better so, for I confess to a very slight acquaintanceship with him, and as I am ignorant, too, of its ceremonious as well as familiar title, the pleasure of a formal introduction is denied. In the portrait the ruling passions — modesty and meekness — are graphically displayed. When it lies close — and it moves rarely, and then with a gentle lateral swaying — the fancy dress of seaweed is a garment of invisibility. It is far more true to character alive than as a museum specimen, for its natural complexion is a yellowish grey, the neutral tint of the blending of sand and coral mud upon which it resides. The preserving fluid added a pinkish tinge to the body and limbs. Blame, therefore, the embalmer for the over-conspicuous form which is not in the habit of the creature as it lived. Neither are the plumes those of pomp and ceremony, but merely the insignia of self-conscious meekness — the masquerade under which the shrinking crab moves about, creating as little din and stir as possible, in an ever-hungry world. With such unfaltering art does it act its part that it is difficult to realise the crab’s real self unless aided by mischance. Conscious of the terrors of discovery, it rocks to and fro, that its plumes may sway, as it were, in rhythm with the surge of the sea. Can there be such a thing as an unconscious mimic? If not, then the portrait is that of an ideal artist.

Those who know only the great flat, ruddy crabs with ponderous pincers and pugnacious mien, which frequent fish shop windows, can form but a very unflattering opinion of the fancy varieties which people every mile of the Barrier Reef.

The struggle for existence in this vast, crowded, and most cruel of arenas is so appalling that the great crab family has been battered by circumstances into weird and fantastic forms. Only a few come up to the human conception of the beautiful either in figure or colouring. While some shrink from observation, others, though themselves obscure to the vanishing-point, seem to be endowed with a vicious yearning for notoriety.

A certain cute little pursuer of fame is absolutely invisible until you find it stuck fast to one of your toes with a serrated dorsal spur a quarter of an inch long. It is invisible, because Nature sends it into this breathing world masquerading, as she did Richard III, deformed, unfashioned, scarce half made-up. In general appearance it closely resembles a crazy root-stalk of alga — green and not quite opaque, and clinging to such alga it lives, and lives so placidly that it cannot be distinguished from its prototype except by the sense of touch. When you pick it gingerly from between your toes there is a malicious gleam in the pin-point black eyes, and then you understand that it is one of the many inventions designed for the torment of trespassers.

I have often sought specimens of this poor relation of the fish-shop window aristocrat, but invariably in vain, until I have found myself suddenly shouting “Eureka!” while balancing myself on one foot eager for the easement of the other, and the giggling demeanour of the imp as it parts company with his spur gives a sort of comic relief to the thrilling sensations of the moment. Upon examination this imp seems to be an example of arrested development. Whimsical fate has played upon it a grim practical joke, flattering it primarily by resemblance to a grotesquely valorous unicorn, and then, having changed her mood to mere pettishness, finished it offhand by adding a section of semi-animate seaweed.

Although among the commonest of the species, the grey sand crab, which burrows bolt-holes in the beaches, is by no means an uninteresting character. Surrounded by enemies, and yet living on the bare, coverless beach, its faculties for self-preservation are exceptionally refined. The eyes are elongated ovals, based on singularly mobile pivots, while the pupils resemble the bubble of a spirit-level. Not only is the range of vision a complete circle, but the crab seems able to concentrate its gaze upon any two given points instantly and automatically. To spite all its skill as a digger, to set at naught its superb visual alertness, the sand crab has a special enemy in the bird policeman which patrols the beach. Vigilant and obnoxiously interfering, the policeman has a long and curiously curved beak, designed for probing into the affairs of crabs, and unless the “hatter” has hastily stopped the mouth of its shaft with a bundle of loose sand — which to the prying bird signifies “Out! Please return after lunch!”— will be disposed of with scant ceremony and no grace, for the manners of the policeman are shocking.

This quick-footed sand-digger enhances its reputation by the performance of feats of subtlety and skill. Its bolt-hole is sometimes three feet deep, generally on an incline. Piled in a mound the spoil would inevitably betray the site of the operations to the policeman, thus seriously facilitating the duties of that official towards the suppression of the species. From remote depths the crab carries a bundle of sand. You remember the trenchant way in which Pip’s sister cut the bread and butter, her left hand jamming the loaf hard and fast against her bib? Just so the crab with its bundle of loose sand, though it has the advantage in the number of limbs which may be pressed into service. The feat of carrying an armful of sliding sand in proportion to bulk about one-third of the body, is far away and beyond the capacities of human beings, but to the crab, which has acquired the trick of temporary consolidation by pressure, it is merely child’s play. Arrived at the mouth of the shaft, it elevates its eyes (which in the dark have rested in neatly fitting recesses) for the purpose of a cautious yet sweeping survey. Seeing nothing alarming, it emerges with the alertness of a jack-in-the-box, races several inches, and scatters the load broadcast as the sower of seed who went forth to sow. Then, as suddenly, the crab pauses and flattens itself — its body merging with its surroundings almost to invisibility — preparatory for a spurt for home. During these exertions the intellect of the crab has been concentrated for outwitting the vigilance of enemies, for the plodding policeman is not singular in appreciation. The lordly red-backed sea-eagle occasionally condescends to such humble fare, and the crab must needs be alert to evade the scrutiny with which the eagle searches the sand.

This passing reference to the wit and deftness of the crab would be quite uncomplimentary in default of special notice of the plug of sand with which it stops its burrow. As a rule it is about an inch thick, and in content far more than a crab could carry in a single load. How does the creature, working from below and with such refractory material, so arrange that the plug shall be flush with the surface and sufficiently consolidated to retain its own weight? Of what art in loose masonry has the crab the unique secret? Shakespeare speaks of stairs of sand, and Poe laments the “how few” grains of golden sand which crept through his fingers to the deep; but who but a crab possesses the secret for the building of a roof of the material which is the popular emblem of instability and shiftiness?

The impartial student must not restrict his notions as to the possibilities of sand to the admirable accomplishments of crabs. He may also inspect with profit the handicraft of a lowly mollusc which agglutinates sand-grains into a kind of plaque, in the substance of which numerous eggs are deposited.

To attribute manual dexterity and a calculating mind to a mere crab, is, no doubt, an insult to the intelligence of those who “view all culogium on the brute creation with a very considerable degree of suspicion and who look upon every compliment which is paid to the ape as high treason to the dignity of man.” But the truthful historian of the capabilities of crabs, the duty of one who stands sponsor to some of the species and who has the hardihood to indite some of the manifestations of their intelligence, wit, and craft, must discard the prejudices of his race, abandon all flattering sense of superiority, forbear the smiles of patronage, and contemplate them from the standpoint of fellowship and sympathy.

In this spirit he watches another expert digger which has a sharp-edged shovel affixed to the end of each of its eight legs, and is so deft in their use that it disappears in the sand on the instant of detection, without visible effort, and almost as quickly as a stone sinks in water.

Unless a crab is a giant in armour, or is endowed with almost supernatural alertness, or is an artist in the art of mimicry, or unless it cultivates some method of rapid disappearance, it has little chance of holding its own in the battle raging unceasingly over the vast areas of the Great Barrier Reef.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32