Next time you’re at the beach, take a closer look at the sand beneath your feet as you walk near the low tide line. See those thousands of perfectly round brown pellets piled around tiny holes?
They are not chocolate sprinkles. And they’re not crab droppings either, contrary to popular belief.
The other day during my beach run on Hilton Head’s south end, I noticed the beach was cluttered with thousands of holes and millions of little pellets, with most of them in regular piles, and my mind started racing with questions.
What kind of creature surrounds its little home by its own poo? How come I’ve never seen these creatures before? Is the stuff toxic?
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I reached out to our super helpful sources from South Carolina DNR and the Coastal Discovery Museum, who concluded those brown pellets are in fact the feces of ghost shrimp.
What is a ghost shrimp? And how come I've never seen one?
Ghost shrimp are these super cool crustaceans with legs and pinchers that live in burrows beneath the sand (that we see as holes). They also are known as “glass shrimp” for their transparency.
They are famous for their feces.
There are more than 500 types of ghost shrimp in the world, but only two species of ghost shrimp are known for their prolific beach pooping – the Georgia ghost shrimp (Biffarius biformis) and Carolina ghost shrimp (Callichirus major).
The average Carolina ghost shrimp produces an average of 500 fecal pellets a day. So the thousands of chocolate-sprinkle-topped baby beach volcanoes are all these guys’ doing.
Ghost shrimp are homebodies that don’t like to leave the safety of their burrows.
Carlos Chacon, manager of natural history at the Coastal Discovery Museum, said ghost shrimp spend a majority of their time digging and feeding off particles in their burrows.
“They come to the opening at high tide, when they are under water, and pull drifting stuff from the water,” he said. “After feeding from the drifting particles of organic matter, they then defecate at the entrance of the tunnel.”
They also like keeping a clean and tidy home, so that explains why all the poop is outside.
They're burrowing fools.
Ghost shrimp are tiny in size (just one to three inches long), but they dig burrows up to 6 feet deep with openings that are about the size of a pencil. They spend the majority of their lives burrowing.
They’re pretty harmless — and so are their feces.
Chacon said that ghost shrimp are harmless for the most part.
“They don't bite, since they do not have mouths big enough to bite a human. They do, however, have pinchers that they can use to grab stuff and potentially defend themselves, but given their small size, they are basically harmless to people,” he said.
And although we all like to generally avoid stepping in any kind of animal feces, Chacon said don’t sweat it if you accidentally step on some of the poo pellets when you’re walking on the beach.
“I am sure the brown pellets probably contain bacteria as pretty much everything else on Earth. However, as far as I know they are harmless." he said. "And no, you should not be concerned about stepping on them.”
They’re used as bait.
Some fishermen use ghost shrimp as bait and use a suction device to get the creature out of its burrow, as seen in the video above.
-NOTE: This was a 2017 Island Packet story that was repackaged.