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Keywords:

  • animal homes and shelter;
  • resource limitation;
  • sociality;
  • mark-recapture;
  • spatial ecology;
  • architectural remodeling;
  • hermit crabs;
  • gastropod shells

Abstract

Understanding the process by which limiting resources are incorporated into populations is a major goal of ecology. While many studies have examined this dynamic process using essential resources like homes, few of these studies have involved homes that can be transported by their occupants. This study introduced over a thousand transportable homes into a population of terrestrial hermit crabs Coenobita compressus, animals that carry their homes with them wherever they travel. These new homes were tracked between years to test key predictions about the temporal dynamics the homes would generate, and the spatial and structural changes the homes would undergo as they were used by the population. When moving into new homes, crabs dropped off their old homes directly at the exchange site, and the number of such traded-in homes peaked rapidly in time. Traded-in homes were under half the diameter of new homes, a difference apparently magnified by social formations involving vacancy chains. After crabs moved into new homes, they carried the homes away from the exchange site. The following year, these homes were displaced a distance four orders of magnitude times their diameter, thus penetrating extensively through the population. Between years, crabs also remodeled the internal architecture of the homes, creating homes that were more spacious and less of a burden to carry. These results suggest that transportable homes generate novel ecological dynamics along temporal, spatial and structural dimensions, which are a direct consequence of their transportability.