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Getting Out of Your Shell 

click to enlarge A kelp crab molting.

Photo by Mike Kelly

A kelp crab molting.

I answered the doorbell and found Wonder Woman standing there in full costume. She explained that she was a space alien telepathically disguising herself. In order to gain acceptance, they appear to Earthlings as the subject of our most recent erotic fantasy. It totally worked and I invited her in. (My dog must have thought she was Lassie because he kept humping her leg. And she didn't mind!)

While researching Earth, this alien had discovered that the northern kelp crab (Pugettia producta) resembles her species quite closely and she wanted to meet them. She had read the online version of Washed Up and knew that I would be the perfect ambassador to facilitate their first contact.

So quickly, before my wife got home, I took Wonder Woman to a rocky shoreline. Northern kelp crabs typically live on dense kelp in shallow water, a habitat most common where it's rocky. However, they can be found all along the West Coast wherever else kelp is attached, like on docks in Humboldt Bay.

While waiting for the tide to recede, we searched for washed-up kelp crab molts. Northern kelp crabs shed their exoskeletons several times before reaching a maximum size at sexual maturity. This is unlike our Dungeness crabs, which continue molting and growing after maturity. We found some nice fresh molts on the beach and Wonder Woman collected them for show-and-tell back on her home planet.

Then we searched for some live kelp crabs. When I uncovered the first one — a large brown-backed and crimson-fronted adult male — Wonder Woman squealed, "He's sooo handsome! And his claws are so big!"

Indeed, I estimate that northern kelp crabs have the fourth pinchiest claws of our local crabs. Ahead of them are Pacific rock crabs, red rock crabs and Dungeness crabs. All three of those are true cancer crabs, though. The northern kelp crab is a decorating spider crab, which we nit-picky biologists don't consider true crabs. So maybe I deserved it that time one cut open my finger.

Then I found a small juvenile. "Oochi koochi koo!" Wonder Woman said. The little crab was decorated with bits of algae attached to tiny hooks on its back. I explained that the attached bits may help camouflage the crab but they are mainly there to be used later as food.

Wonder Woman tried some kelp and said it wasn't bad. I mentioned that northern kelp crabs do mainly eat kelp but, in winter when the kelp dies back, they will switch to feeding on encrusting animals like barnacles, mussels and hydroids.

We then found an adult female carrying tens of thousands of grayish-purple eggs under her abdomen. The color indicated the eggs would hatch soon. This prompted Wonder Woman to ask if we could find a pair of crabs having sex. I told her no because kelp crabs move out to deep water to mate. So she swam out to sea. She found a mating pair in about 200 feet of water and got some video she said would be worth big money back home.

Satisfied with the educational adventure, we went back to my house. She finally asked what it was my dog kept doing to her leg. I said, "Uh ... It's like an Earthling, um, symbolic gesture to wish you, uh, to live long and prosper."

Wonder Woman asked if it would be culturally appropriate for an alien to wish me well like this. And I was like, "Sure!" But then, oh no! My wife got home to find me having my leg humped by Han Solo. She didn't mind.

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Mike Kelly

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