The Coconut Crab Kills Birds And Breaks Bones – And May Have Eaten Amelia Earhart

Published July 16, 2018
Updated April 21, 2020

The coconut crab isn’t just scary-looking: its claws are powerful enough to rip open a coconut, it can climb trees, and it may just be the animal that devoured Amelia Earhart.

Coconut Crab

Epic Wildlife/YouTubeA gigantic coconut crab climbs a trash can.

“Monstrous.” That was the only word Charles Darwin could find to describe the coconut crab when he first saw one for himself.

This was no ordinary crab. The coconut crab stretches three feet long, and though it only weighs eight or nine pounds, it’s strong enough to carry more than six times its own weight.

In Darwin’s time, there were stories floating around about what these things could do.

There were rumors that they could climb trees and dangle from them for hours, holding on by nothing more than a single pincer-like some massive overgrown spider. There were stories that their claws were so strong that they could break through a coconut. And there were stories that they could tear a human being apart, limb by limb.

At the time, Darwin didn’t believe most of what he’d heard, but it was no exaggeration. Since then, we’ve found out that every story about what this horrifying-looking creature can do is more or less true.

Claws That Are As Powerful As A Lion’s Jaw

Coconut Crab On Beach

Wikimedia CommonsA coconut crab on the beach. April 24, 2011.

The coconut crab is more than just creepy to look at — their pincers are some of the most powerful and most dangerous weapons in the animal kingdom. If its claws clamp down on your leg, it will grip you with as much power as a bite from a lion’s jaws.

They can do some terrifying things with those powerful claws. Usually, of course, they don’t use them on humans. As the name suggests, the coconut crab’s main source of food is coconuts. The strength they show when they eat them is unnerving, as they can tear a coconut apart with nothing more than their bare claws.

But coconuts aren’t the only thing these creatures eat. They’ll eat almost anything. They’ve been known to hunt and kill birds, to tear apart live pigs, and even to cannibalize the corpses of other coconut crabs.

Nothing’s off the menu for a coconut crab. They’ll even eat their own skin. These crabs shed their exoskeletons to grow new ones. When the old, molted shell falls off, they eat it whole, chewing up the dried-up shell of their own dead skin.

Coconut Crab: A Climbing Killer

Coconut Crabs Climbing Trees

Wikimedia CommonsCoconut Crabs in Bora Bora. November 23, 2006.

These gigantic crabs can climb anything they see. Their pincers are so strong that they can hang off anything they can get a hold of for hours, be it the branches of a tree, the chains in a fence, or the walls around a home.

It’s how they get their food – by climbing to the tops of coconut trees and knocking them off. The crabs live on islands all over the Pacific and Indian oceans. There’s a huge population of them on Christmas Island, but these things will be there pretty well anywhere you can find a coconut tree.

They don’t just climb trees to get fruit, though. In some places, their main prey is birds, and they’ll climb to the tops of trees to attack them and drag them down to the underground burrows where they live.

A coconut crab attacks a red-footed booby bird.

Scientist Mark Laidre described their attack strategy in horrific detail. It was on an island where the birds had learned to live in fear. They stayed up at the tops of the trees, never daring to touch down onto the ground below where they knew the powerful pincers of the coconut crabs were waiting to crush their bones.

“In the middle of the night, I observed a coconut crab attack and kill an adult red-footed booby,” said Laidre, a biologist who has extensively studied the coconut crab. “The booby had been sleeping on a low-lying branch, less than a meter up the tree. The crab slowly climbed up and grabbed the booby’s wing with its claw, breaking the bone and causing the booby to fall to the ground.”

The crab climbed down to finish it off. “The crab then approached the bird, grabbing and breaking its other wing,” he said. No matter how much the booby struggled or pecked at the hard shell of the crab, it couldn’t get it to let go.

Then the swarm came. “Five more coconut crabs came to the site within 20 minutes, likely cueing in on the blood,” Laidre recalled. “As the booby lay paralyzed, the crabs fought, eventually tearing the bird apart.”

Each crab took a limb or a hunk of meat from the mutilated bird’s body back down to his underground lair, and there they fed.

Tearing Amelia Earhart Apart?

Amelia Earhart

Wikimedia CommonsAmelia Earhart shortly before her death.

Coconut crabs don’t usually try to hurt people, but there have been exceptions. Humans are their only predators, and when pushed, they will strike back.

Reportedly, the natives of the Pacific Islands have trouble with these giant crabs. In search of coconut husks, they would reach their fingers into their burrows, trying to steal the food the crabs had left behind. The unlucky would end up finding more than just coconuts. The crabs would strike, and the men would find their fingers caught in the vice-like grips of their claws.

The most horrific story of all just might be the answer to one of history’s great mysteries. In 1940, researchers found a fractured skeleton on Nikumaroro Island that had born torn apart, limb from limb. It’s widely believed that this was the body of Amelia Earhart – and that she had been torn apart by coconut crabs.

Earhart, it’s believed, crashed on the island and was left either bleeding or dead on its beach. Like the red-footed booby, her blood would have lured the coconut crabs living in the island’s underground burrows.

A team of scientists ran a test in 2007 to see what the crabs would have done to her. They left a pig carcass at the site where Earhart was believed to have crashed.

Just as they imagined might have happened to Earhart, the crabs crawled out of their homes and tore the pig to shreds. Then the crabs dragged whatever they could find down to their underground lairs and ate the flesh off of its bones.

Granted, the crabs have more reason to fear us than we have to fear them. Earhart may be the only person to ever have been killed by coconut crab, while we’ve hunted enough of them to turn them into an endangered species.

Still, if you see one, we wouldn’t blame you if you run. Face-to-face with a three-foot-long, tree-climbing, thick-shelled crab that can snap your bones with a squeeze of its claws, it’s probably not worth sticking around.

After learning about the terrifying coconut crab, find out about the craziest types of animal camouflage and the most dangerous animals on Earth.

Mark Oliver
Mark Oliver is a writer, teacher, and father whose work has appeared on The Onion's StarWipe, Yahoo, and Cracked, and can be found on his website.