Elwood, R. W. 2022. Hermit crabs, shells, and sentience. Animal Cognition 25(5), 1241–1257.

Hermit crabs have an intimate relationship with gastropod shells and show numerous activities by which they locate, select, and change shells in different contexts. They gather information about new shells and update information about their existing shells. This involves integration of different sensory modalities, memory-formation, and comparison of the overall value of each shell. Crabs also fight to get shells from other crabs, and again they gather information about the shell qualities and the opponent. Attacking crabs monitor their fight performance, and defenders are influenced by attacker activities, and both crabs are influenced by the gain or loss that might be made by swapping shells. Swapping shells involves the defender being naked for a short period. Leaving a shell also occurs if the shell is experimentally fixed in place or buried in sand or if small electric shocks are applied to the abdomen, and the quality of the current shell is traded-off against escaping possible asphyxiation or the aversive shocks. Hermit crabs show remarkable abilities, involving future planning, with respect to recognizing the shape and size of shells, and how they limit their passage through environmental obstructions. They also assess if shells might become available and wait for that to happen. Groups of crabs arrange themselves in size order so that orderly transfer of shells might occur down a line of crabs. These observations are discussed in the light of complex perceptual and cognitive abilities, and the possibility of sentience and awareness is discussed.

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