It seems Christmas Island’s notorious robber crabs have earned their name after a suspected late-night burglary on the remote territory.
One of the species, which can measure up to a metre wide and weigh four kilograms, has been accused of destroying and stealing a thermal-imaging camera belonging to a researcher studying one of the island’s other native residents.
The robber crab or coconut crab, which can live for up to 80 years, is sometimes referred to as a “gentle giant”.
But Western Sydney University PhD candidate Annabel Dorrestein would challenge that description.
“They have been bothering me ever since I started my PhD,” she said.
“Dragging away cameras … I just see them and I run after them and they let go and I retrieve my equipment.
“But not this particular time.”
She has had numerous troubling encounters with the species – the world’s biggest land crustacean – while she has been studying the Christmas Island flying fox.
Ms Dorrestein said she had to fight off crabs on numerous occasions in recent months as they attempted to steal her backpack or other equipment.
‘We saw claw marks on the tripod’
Ms Dorrestein said she had set up a $6000 camera on a tripod with an external battery, but when she returned the next morning the camera was gone.
The thief left an obvious clue.
“This particular night we were recording a mango tree, so we set it up and we hooked it up to an external battery so it could run the whole night and we left it running,” Ms Dorrestein said.
“[In the] morning when we went to the mango tree to retrieve the thermal camera – and this has been going very well for weeks – there was no thermal camera any more.
“The tripod that it was mounted to was knocked over, we saw claw marks on the tripod where the thermal camera was attached to the cord that ran from the thermal camera to the battery – [it] was mangled or claw marks on the battery.
“So basically, a big robber crab ripped the thermal camera off the spotting scope and mangled the cables so it came loose and just dragged it into the forest.
“[We were] looking for hours and hours in every nook and cranny and we found lots of big robber crabs hiding everywhere, but none of them have had my thermal camera.”
Christmas Island local Chris Bray attempted to help the researcher find her camera, but said the piece of equipment was nowhere to be seen.
A reputation as thieves
Christmas Island National Park’s chief ranger Rob Muller said the crabs were known to have kleptomaniac tendencies.
“They are very inquisitive and they have an exceptionally good sense of smell, so that takes them into all sorts of places that arouses their curiosity,” Mr Muller said.
“And if they find something that arouses their curiosity, they want to drag it away – and they are big enough to – to have a closer look at it.
“Shoes and thongs around my doorway I’ve had go missing and found sometimes quite a while away.”
Ms Dorrestein’s account has inspired others to share their stories of robber crab encounters.
Mr Bray, who runs a business, said some of his most recent guests had their own story to tell.
“We had some guests for lunch the other night and there’s a nice little barbecue, like strapped to a pole a long way away.
“I can’t imagine how a robber crab would even get up there … the guests sent me some photos just this morning of this huge robber crab that has somehow lifted up the hood of the barbecue and was like climbing inside,” he said.
“They’re pretty amazing animals actually and [some] live for like 80 or 90 years, [so] they learn a few tricks in that time for sure.”