24 Apr 2020

In Cuba, April showers bring crabs

Crabs are hot in April!

You may have heard the old adage, "April showers bring May flowers." That's true in many places but isn't accurate everywhere. In Cuba, flowers bloom all year; April showers bring crabs. 

The start of Cuba's wet season triggers the migration of the Caribbean land crab, Gecarcinus ruricola. Spring rains generally begin in late March, so crabs may start appearing in greater abundance at that point but, in April, their mass migration to the sea usually peaks. Some late bloomers, if you want to call them that, can also be seen hiking back and forth during May and, possibly, in early June. These are the crabs who had difficulty getting dates. But, for all intents and purposes, April is crab month. 

Found throughout the Caribbean, G. ruricola is a terrestrial crab that comes in a variety of colors – primarily black, red, yellow and green. In Cuba, the "red" land crab is the most prevalent but I've seen a rainbow assortment of these fist-sized (on average) crustaceans over the years. The crab's main shell, or carapace, grows at an approximate rate of one inch (25 mm) per year, it reaches maturity within five years and its normal life expectancy is 10 years... unless it's crushed by a car while crossing a road.

You might well wonder, why does a crab want to cross a road? Sex, baby! These critters need the ocean for mating, even though they're not doing it in the surf or on the beach, as romantic as that may seem to some. To understand the crabby love life, let's step back a bit. About four million years ago, they were sea creatures but, as time evolved, they did too. Now, they prefer to live in the forest, in burrows. Such damp and shaded places are important because they need a moist environment in order to breathe properly. I guess evolution only goes so far sometimes. However, reproduction still requires sea water.

Anyway, when the spring rains begin, the outside world becomes humid enough for them to emerge from their dank dens and venture forth, looking for love. First, I've read, the males clamor off to the ocean to bathe. Why not? What gal, no matter how hard-shelled, wants to mate with a smelly crustacean who's been living in a dirty hole? I would posit that the initial migratory wave that appears is really just the guy-crabs going for a nice, cleansing swim. Unfortunately, going from forest to ocean often necessitates crossing a road. Such are the hazards of modern life, evolution aside.

Hey, baby, you're looking crabby!

These crusty little dudes (and dudettes, for that matter) have an evolutionary enhancement (to use the term loosely) to their personal hydration systems that could make them especially aromatic in a hot environment. Essentially, they pee on themselves. They use a "nephritic pad" for this and, after the cleansing assistance of microbes, are able to reabsorb their own urine. This does help offset dehydration in a hot climate but I'm guessing it smells worse that sweat, although probably not to a crab. Attraction can be a mysterious thing.

Once the hot female crabs are properly impregnated, they begin their massive march to the sea, each with a payload of about 85,000 eggs, which they will release into the water and hope for the best. Their eggs will hatch in a few weeks and, if not eaten, the little ones will eventually clamor back up onto land and move in with some nice older crabs who have a spacious, shady burrow and can provide food for them. Then, the crab life cycle will continue on repeat in perpetuity, unless tragedy befalls. 

However, there are quite a few potential misadventures that can befall these crusty creatures. In addition to the potential perils presented by crossing roads, particularly in urban areas, crabs could also drown! Although the ocean was once their home, they have apparently evolved so far beyond their roots that they're not even good swimmers any more. And, naturally, there's the possibility they'll be eaten. Crabs' main predators are birds but, in some places, humans also eat them. The meat is rich in protein but, depending on the location where the crab has lived, it can be toxic. They can absorb excessive amounts of tungsten, according to my readings. So, before cracking open a land crab and dipping it in butter, you may want to find out what the locals have to say about eating it.

In Cuba, as far as I've been able to discern, most people eschew eating G. ruricola,  the red land crab. But, please note, I'm no expert on this culinary matter! When I've been in Marea del Portillo or other parts of the country during crab migration, I've often asked if these crabs could be eaten. I've usually been told "no" but, sometimes, I received a different answer, such as "why not?" That, if nothing else, intrigues me.

When I am again able to visit Cuba in April, I will likely explore this further. Eating tungsten-enfused crabs, perhaps, would be a problem if you ate them on a regular basis but, if only ingested the odd time....? I have to admit, I'm curious. Stay tuned! 

Keep smiling,

Catch ya later!

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