Monster of the Week: Leatherface & Hermit Crabs


Slip into something comfortable. Bryanston Pictures/Vortex

Monsters have a way of getting under our skin. Some even prance around the house in it, donning our flayed pelts like a series of decorative shawls. You'll find several examples of these skin wearers, from the insanely pragmatic Jame "Buffalo Bill" Gumb to the monstrous granddaddy of them all: Leatherface.

The most dangerous member of the Texan cannibal clan, Leatherface is known for his love of sledge hammers and chainsaws, but his nickname stems from the various human skin masks he dons. Sure, you'll find direct connections between this fictional proto-slasher and the world of true crime, but what of animal parallels?

It Puts the Snail Shell on its Uropods

Look no further than the hermit crabs at your local pet store -- or the thousand other species of shell-stealing crustaceans of the superfamily Paguroidea. You're likely familiar with their scavenging ways: While other sea dwellers devote time and energy to personal shell growth, hermit crabs scavenges secondhand snail armor and clasp it tight with specialized uropods: tiny hooked appendages on the end of the creature's curled abdomen.

(Frank Greenaway/Dorling Kindersley/Getty)

Aquatic hermit crabs are a bit more choosy about what they wear, but according to a 2012 Berkeley study, terrestrial hermits have a tougher time. Abandoned snail shells are less abundant on land and, like Leatherface, these hermit crabs have to hollow out and remodel avaliable shells to fit their growing bulk. The best way to level-up to a roomier shell is to wretch another crab from its customized armor.

Aquatic hermit crabs, like Leatherface and Buffalo Bill, are solitary creatures -- but shell scarcity actually forces terrestrial hermit crabs to engage in a sort of "conga line" of greedy socialization. When three or more group together, more crabs swarm together to participate in the ensuing vacancy chain. One crab loses its home, another moves in and a chain reaction of shell-swapping moves through the scuttling masses. It's also a bit like a game of musical chairs, because the whole episode tends to end with one crab (usually the one forcibly removed at the start) doomed to a tiny, inefficient scrap of shell.

Luckily, our humanoid skin-wearers have yet to develop such a practice -- but you can just imagine their skin-swapping parties.

Monster of the Week is a - you guessed it - regular look at the denizens is of our monster-haunted world. Sometimes we'll focus on the cultural aspects, but mostly we'll look at the possible science behind a creature of myth, movie or legend. Be sure to explore the Monster Gallery as well as the Monster Science video series.


About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.