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Setting up a proper crabitat

Let’s look at how to set up a proper hermit crab habitat, which we refer to as a crabitat.

Basing your tank set up on what you saw at the petstore or mall cart where you may have purchased your hermit crabs is a recipe for disaster. Kritter Keepers and wire cages are death boxes and should never be used.

Listed below are the primary components of a proper set up and we will discuss them in detail. If you are not willing to equip the tank properly you should return your hermit crabs or rehome them, they will not thrive without a properly set up habitat. Captive hermit crabs can live over 30 years in the proper habitat. Most hermit crabs die either in the first month of ownership, during the first molt of ownership or within the first year to 18 months.  So yes, they can technically ‘survive’ in poor conditions but why on earth would you purposely do this to an animal???

A simple list of the items you will need to properly outfit the crabitat. There are low cost options for most of these items.

  • Tank
  • Lid
  • Light*
  • Heat
  • Substrate
  • Gauges
  • Bowls
  • Climbers
  • Hiders
  • Plants and Vines

The tank itself should be glass or lexan and large enough to comfortably house your hermit crabs. A MINIMUM of 2 gallons of space per small or medium hermit crab but 5 gallons per crab is much more humane. Large and jumbo crabs will need much more space, 10 gallon minimum. A 10 gallon tank is too small for even one large or jumbo crab. Plan for the future when purchasing your tank, allow for the growth of your crabs or additions to the herd.   A used tank is perfectly fine and will greatly reduce the cost of supplies.

The tank must have a lid that retains humidity. A screen lid with glass, lexan or plastic wrap on top is what is typically used. Hermit crabs require humidity to breathe. Opening the lid for feedings and water changes each day usually provides enough air exchange. Fresh air flow reduces mold, mildew and fungus growth.

Light is required, whether they are used as your heat source or not. Hermit crabs require a normal 12 hour cycle of light and dark, it is vital to the molt process. If your crabitat is in a well light room that will meet the need of daytime light. Do NOT place your tank in directly sunlight!

UVB is believed to extend the life span of captive hermit crabs. UVB bulbs must be mounted in such a way that there is no glass or plastic barrier between the bulb and the hermit crabs. Most people mount the lid inside the tank.  Bulbs must be replaced every 12 months.

For nighttime viewing, LED in red or blue is safe. Your hermit crabs do not require a light at night.

Hermit crabs require warm temperatures. This can come from overhead lights or from heat pad (often called under the tank heater or UTH) which is placed on the wall of the tank and not under it. Over head lights or heat emitters are not recommended for inexperienced pet owners. They make it challenging to maintain the correct environment in the tank.

Ways to heat your crabitat

Global Temperature and Precipitation Maps by Month

Gauges are the only way to monitor and maintain proper heat and humidity levels. The tank temperatures should be a range of 75F to 82F.  72F is the absolute minimum and your tank should not remain at this temperature long term. A temporary dip or spike in temperature is not cause for concern. A range means that your tank should have areas of different temperatures. Some species seem to enjoy slightly warmer temperatures but the common clypeatus is happy in the 75-82F range. Check the substrate temperature as well to make sure it is not too hot. Overly warm substrate will kill molters or discourage molting. Humidity ranges should be 70-80% this is relative humidity. Occasional higher humidity is not cause for concern but maintaining excessively high humidity could lead to flooding or lethal bacteria due to over saturation of your substrate. Your analog hygrometer will need to be calibrated before use. Wireless, digital gauges are relatively cheap and are more accurate than analog gauges.

Substrate should be a mix of 5 parts play sand and 1 part eco earth. The ideal mix will keep the sand moist throughout. The consistency should be so that you could easily make a sand castle. That means that molting burrows will not collapse from drying out. We suggest using a brackish water to expand the eco earth bricks. This will help reduce the chance of mold. The eco earth should be DRY when mixed into the sand so you don’t end up with water logged substrate at the beginning. You can always add water once the crabitat environment is stable, if needed. In many cases it is not needed. Starting with too wet substrate will lead to flooding and/or bacterial blooms. Mix your substrate dry, close up the tank with the lid and all the decor and allow it to stabilize for 48 hours. If the humidity is too low you can mist the substrate. Then wait another 24 hours and check the humidity again. It is much easier to add moisture to the substrate than it is to dry it out once it is in the tank.

The eco earth will help maintain humidity but you may need to add some moss pits if your levels are too low. Not all moss is safe so be sure to check our list: Which types of moss are safe for my hermit crabs?

Substrates for hermit crabs

Three bowls will be needed. Two of the bowls should be deep enough to allow your hermit crabs to submerge themselves. One should be fresh water and one should be ocean water made with marine grade salt mix. All water that comes in contact with your hermit crabs must be treated to remove chlorine, chloramines, ammonia as well as other chemicals. The third bowl will be for food. These don’t have to be reptile dishes specifically but they should be something that your smallest crabs can easily enter and exit. Many people use disposable Gladware type bowls for water pools. We recommend placing a rock, fake plant or coral in the pool for the smaller crabs to climb out.

Places to hide, things to climb on, as well as plants and vines are important to create an environment that is stimulating and enriching for your hermit crabs. Huts do not have to be made of coconut shells, many things will work. The same holds true for things to climb on. There are lots of DIY ideas or less expensive ideas for creating vertical climbing opportunities. Fake plants and vines from a craft store will work as well as the ones you find at the pet store. Some live plants are safe for the crabitat but your hermit crabs will most likely kill them.

Creating additional levels in your crabitat to maximize usable space

Your goal should be to create an environment that is as close to what hermit crabs experience in nature as possible. Hermit crabs live primarily on beaches, so think tropical!

Here are some examples of properly set up crabitats:

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Ask Milo – What size tank do I need?

Mattiesse ask:

I am the proud owner of 4 beautiful crabs in Brisbane. the problem is, is that I live in NSW so my other parents in queens land need to take care of them. luckily im bringing them down here but I cant bring the tank, so im gonna have to make a new home. im planning on getting more hermit crabs as well so I need to know how to make the best sized and equipt tank for soon to have not 4 but 6-8 hermit crabs. how big should the tank be and what is the best stuff to get for them so they live a long healthy life!!!

How exciting! The amount of space you need depends on the size of crabs and the number of crabs. Long term you should have 10 gallons of space per crab so you would need at least an 80 gallon tank if you are going to keep 8 hermit crabs. That will give them plenty of space in your crabitat as they grow. You will need a lid that can hold in the humidity, a proper heat source, a day time light and about 12 inches deep substrate (mix of play sand with a bit of cocofiber mixed in). Also food dishes, saltwater and fresh water ponds (deep enough to submerge in), gauges, places to hide and things to climb. Oh and yes a bunch of shells!

For more details check out some of our articles:
Hermit Crab Essentials Shopping List
Newbies Guide to Hermit Crabs

Deep cleaning your crabitat

Tank from a rescue - Photo by Heather Barnhart

Tank from a rescue – Photo by Heather Barnhart

The information in this article is somewhat outdated in that we generally no longer do scheduled deep cleanings. If your tank is set up properly it can be self cleaning, self sustaining. However if you have a flood or a bacteria outbreak or some other emergency situation you may find this information beneficial.

written by Michele Stephens

You’ve set up the perfect crabitat, the hermit crabs have been roaming happily about the place for weeks, even months. You change the water and the food but now, the substrate just isn’t looking as fresh as it use to and you suspect that it might be time to do a deep clean (a total tank teardown). Crabs in the wild are in an ever-changing environment that is cleansed by the elements, like rain and running water, sun and wind. Our crabs don’t get that in their tank so it’s up to us to do it for them. Okay, how do we do it? Well first you need to decide if it’s the right time. There are several factors that you need to consider before deep cleaning the tank.

  • How long has it been? Generally you can expect your tank to need a deep clean every 3-5 months depending on how crowded it is in there.
  • What is the status of the colony? Is everyone up? Is there anyone you haven’t seen in awhile? Are there any new additions? You want to try to time it so that you do the deep clean with as many crabs topside as possible.
  • Emergency deep clean. Sometimes you may have to do a deep clean earlier because of emergency circumstances. A major mold outbreak, mites, or ants would be good examples. Those types of deep cleans require some special directions that I will not cover here.

Supplies
Once you’ve decided that you’re ready for a deep clean you need to get some supplies. It really depends on your tank and your preferences, but most of the following supplies apply to all deep cleans.

  • Lots of salt water (the same kind you give your hermit crabs to drink).
  • Substrate – if you are replacing yours. Some people prefer to remove, sift, and bake theirs but I prefer to fully replace mine.
  • A cookie sheet
  • Some bowls, the bigger the better
  • Vinegar and a couple of lemons
  • Paper towels
  • garbage or big bin for holding the substrate in as you remove it
  • an ISO or isolation unit

What you can do the night before

  • I usually am short on time the day of the deep clean so I like to get my work down as early as possible. There are some things you can do the night before to save you time on deep clean day.
  • Prepare your ISO tank. Make sure your humidity and temperature are within range. Especially if you are baking the sand/FB and they will be in there for a prolonged period of time. I’ve found that some Fiber Bedding reconstituted with warm water boost temp and humidity quickly.
  • If you are adding any new climbing elements or other toys, caves, pools, you can sterilize them now. With plastic and resin items I wash in a straight vinegar spray followed by peroxide before rinsing. Wood and cocohuts are soaked in salt water and baked at 250 for 20 minutes. Netting is soaked in salt water and microwaved in a glass bowl for 2 minutes.
  • If you are using fiber bedding you can hydrate it the night before so it’s ready, if you like to bake your sand, this is a nice time to do that too. (if you’re adding new)
  • One of my favorite things to do the night before the deep clean is to have the “Grand Stinky Feast”. Pull out your grosses, stinkiest foods and line them up. Shrimp, tuna, silversides, you name it. You don’t have to worry about where it will end up because you’ll be cleaning it all out tomorrow!
  • Then while you watch them eating the eyeballs out of your silversides you can stare at the tank and plan the new layout you’re going to execute perfectly tomorrow.

Tearing the Tank Down

Empty 150 gallon tank

Empty 150 gallon tank

First you will want to remove the climbing items and nets and sterilize them the same way that you did the new items the day before by soaking and baking. As you remove each item check it carefully for mold and for clinging crabbies. Items with mold need to be treated more aggressively than items that are mold-free. When you have your climbing items removed and soaking your tank will be empty except for the substrate. Grab two bowls. One bowl for shells, filled with salt water, one to give your crabs a bath in, filled with fresh water. You should also have an isolation unit or holding tank ready for them to wait in while you clean out the tank. As you remove “empty” shells put them in the salt water. A shell should always be treated as though there is a crab in it. Placing it in the water will force a hiding crab to emerge if it’s very small in the shell. Turn the shells over and over in the water to get the water all the way to the back. You’ll know you’ve gotten it completely full when no more bubbles come out and the shell no longer floats.

Once the “empty shells” are dealt with remove any surface crabs, give them a quick bath and put them in the holding tank. I use a 10 gallon aquarium for mine. You should have a good idea of how many crabs that you have. During deep cleans I like to photograph each of my crabs to chart their progress. The next step is the most delicate and the most nerve wracking of the whole process. During this particular deep clean I had 9 of my 15 crabs down. I was sure that many of them were just buried (maybe someone told them my plan) but I also knew that odds were very good that a few were molting. To prepare for this possibility I set up my 3 gallon ISO.

Grab an empty garbage can and line it with a new garbage bag. Starting with one corner carefully remove the sand one handful at a time. I usually empty each handful into a large plastic cup, sifting each one, then pour it into the garbage bag, sifting again. I cannot stress enough how important it is not to rush this part of the deep clean. Once you have a small area cleaned down to the bottom of the tank slowly widen the circle a little at a time. You want to find the buried crab from the side rather than the top, that way if their cave collapses it is only for a very short time. As you come across your buried crab assess whether or not he is molting. Obviously the presence of an exoskeleton will indicated a freshly molted crab but other signs will let you know where your crab is in the process. A pale crab with sharpened nail tips who withdraws far into the shell may indicate a freshly molted crab. Usually these guys are safe to return to the regular group but you can isolate them for a few days to be sure. If you find a crab in mid-molt carefully remove them and their exo to the isolation tank. Place a cocohut over them or nestle them into some moss. Put the ISO in a low traffic area and keep an eye on them, most crabs do quite well, even when disturbed as long as its not repeatedly.

Once all of your crabs have been collected do a head count. Even with this double sifting one of my crabs made it through the system and I had to get her out of the bag of sand. Your next job is to clean the tank. You can do this a number of ways. High concentration salt water, vinegar, or lemon juice are all good alternatives. My favorite method is to cut a lemon in half and use it to scrub down the glass. To minimize scratches from sand take a damp paper towel and carefully push all sand to the bottom of the tank. Whatever method you use, rinse the tank until the smell is no longer detected. This is when your advanced preparation pays off. Place your substrate in the tank. Remember that substrate should be twice as deep your biggest crab. I use damp substrate and I wet it in the bottom of the tank and mix it together as I add it. I slope mine toward the back of the tank so that it is almost twice as deep in the back as it is in the front.

Finally, the fun part, arrange your tank however you want. Try something new! Your crabs like variety and change, it keeps them active and curious. Once you’ve got your crabitat set up the way you want, add your empty shells and your crabs. Grab your camera. This is the best time to take pictures of your crabs, they are always at their most active when exploring their new territory.

Basic cleaning guide