Hermit crabs are squatters by nature, they salvage empty shells into which they can retract their soft, spiral shaped abdomens. Hermit crabs are popular pets and are often selected by the attractiveness of the particular shell they are occupying when purchased. As they can live quite long lives (up to 32 years in some cases!) they periodically need new shells either because they outgrow the old one it becomes damaged. When this occurs, they leave behind the old shell, after having found a new one to occupy and, thereby, create another vacancy for a different crab.
Japanese artist Aki Inomata is one of many people around the world who has hermit crabs for pets. She read stories about ducks, eagles, dolphins, and people who have received prosthetics, created through 3D printing, and wondered about the possibilities for creating individual homes for her crabs. In the absence of a suitable shell, hermit crabs have been known to occupy alternatives such as bottle caps or plastic casings.
This seeming flexibility belied the complexity of creating a shell that a crab would choose to occupy. Inomata explained:
“At first I thought hermit crabs could fit into any shape of shelter, since I knew that some hermit crabs choose lids of mineral water bottles. However, it wasn’t so at all. I tried several but they didn’t pay attention.”
After the first set of shells was largely ignored, Inomata began to experiment and refine to see if she couldn’t create something that would attract the crabs’ attention. She worked with a variety of factors such as weight and size but was continually frustrated by the difficulties of making such adjustments manually. It was then, that she used a CT scanner to capture a minutely detailed, high quality scan of the interior of a shell that one of the crabs had previously been using. With this data available, she was able to print a new home that the creatures immediately recognized as suitable.
The shells that she created mimic the skylines of New York, Greece, and Thailand, allowing the crabs to drag nations with them as they move about their tank. The idea for the urban silhouettes resulted from considering the meaning of the movement and adaptation that are part of human immigration and emigration. Questions of the suitability of new environments and the abilities to adapt to new surroundings make the idea of hermit crab shell migration particularly interesting. Ultimately, the project asks the question: who are we when we are no longer in our native environment?
“In Japanese language, hermit crabs are called ‘Yadokari’, which literally means somebody living in a temporal place. Though the body of the hermit crab is the same, its appearance changes completely according to the shell it is wearing. It’s as if they were asking, ‘who are you?’”
It is, of course, difficult to accurately assess any measure of ‘hermit crab happiness’ but there is no reason to believe they would have decided to inhabit the shells if they did not meet their requirements. What do you think of these uniquely designed, 3D printed shells? Discuss in the 3D printed hermit crab shell forum thread on 3DPB.com. You can watch a video of the process, both of creation and as the crabs choose their environments below: