Memory of Social Partners in Hermit Crab Dominance


Francesca Gherardi, Dipartimento di Biologia Animale e Genetica, Università di Firenze, Via Romana 17, 50125 Firenze, Italy. E-mail:


We investigated the possibility that invertebrates recognize conspecific individuals by studying dominance relationships in the long-clawed hermit crab, Pagurus longicarpus. We conducted three sets of laboratory experiments to define the time limits for acquiring and maintaining memory of an individual opponent. The results reveal two characteristics that make individual recognition in this species different from standard associative learning tasks. Firstly, crabs do not require training over many repeated trials; rather, they show evidence of recognition after a single 30-min exposure to a stimulus animal. Secondly, memory lasts for up to 4 d of isolation without reinforcement. A third interesting feature of individual recognition in this species is that familiar opponents are recognized even before the formation of a stable hierarchical rank. That is, recognition seems to be relatively independent of repeated wins (rewards) or losses (punishments) in a dominance hierarchy. The experimental protocol allowed us to show that this species is able to classify conspecifics into two ‘heterogeneous subgroups’, i.e. familiar vs. unfamiliar individuals, but not to discriminate one individual of a group from every other conspecific from ‘a unique set of cues defining that individual’. In other words, we demonstrated a ‘binary’– and not a ‘true’– individual recognition. However, 1 d of interactions with different crabs did not erase the memory of a former rival, suggesting that P. longicarpus uses a system of social partner discrimination more refined than previously shown.