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By Richard Seale
A shell game in our favor
We humans have trouble imagining reversing our body structure. What would it be like
if our skeletal structure were on our outside rather than buried within our flesh? Well, crus
taceans like the crabs and shrimp around us have such an exoskeleton and must cope with
outgrowing their shells. Changing to a new shell is no simple matter, nor is it free of risk. It
seems every predator loves to feast on a soft shell. For this article let us stick to our common
delicacy, the blue claw crab.
A crab that has outgrown its current hard shell first has to grow a soft under shell inside
the hard shell, but around everything that is to remain after shedding. It also must store up a
supply of fat that will give it the energy to perform the molting and then serve as food while
its soft shell hardens. During the molting process the crab is defenseless. While shedding, it
has to squirm out of the hard shell backwards. In preparation for this incredible exercise, its
old shell has formed splits underneath the top shell points, near the inner end of its claws,
and across the back of its top shell. Inside its body, the sections of shell that hold the leg
muscles soften and shrink a little. I have watched hundreds of crabs shed, and I still stop to
watch them pull off this difficult feat.
Hereabouts, during the summer full moons, both female and male crabs perform a ma
ture shed. It seems the upper estuaries are preferred, but grassy areas of Bogue Sound also
provide protected areas. During the June full moon I was fortunate enough to have three
nice sized male crabs, Baltimore Jimmie class after shedding, squirm out of their shells for
me. After a crab clears its old hard shell, it looks like a hard shelled crab to the uninitiated.
But after you have dealt with crabs for some years, you can somehow tell a softee from a
hard shell using subtle color differences. You can also tell a crab about to shed using clues of
color and shell splits. You learn these subtleties by lots of experience.
One of the most remarkable things about the molting of a crab is how much structure
the crab walks out of. It leaves eye covers, lung segments (called lights), internal body walls.
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mouth parts and even hinges
of legs and claws.
The photo at right shows
three freshly molted soft
shell male crabs on either
side of the ruler. The two
shells all the way in back are
the old hard shells out of
which came the softees in
front of the shell. The crabs
grew significantly larger in
the molt, usually almost a
one-third gain in dimen
sions. I have pulled the top
shell of the back left shell off.
This shows how much of the
internal structures were left
-Photo by Richard Seale
behind. Imagine leaving your ribs and hip bones behind if you could shed.
Yes, there is magic in watching crabs shed, but it is the eating of soft shell crabs where
the special treat resides. Preparation goes like this: make sure the crab is alive, note a line on
the top shell a little less than half way back from between the eyes. The line has a Y at either
end. Starting at the outside edge of an eye, cut to one Y, then follow the mid-line to the next
Y, then cut out to the outside edge of the second eye. This quickly kills the crab at the same
time it removes the stomach entrails. Next, lift up each point of the shell. Underneath you
will find the lungs, or lights. They look like thick feathers. Remove both sets of these. Fi
nally, turn the crab over and remove the sex organ, which is the Washington Monument on
male crabs or a pyramid on female crabs. Gently wash the crab body in cool running water.
Drain for a minute or two, roll the crab in flour or breadcrumbs, making sure to fully coat
the crab all over, including under the shell tips and in the cleaned area. With a sharp point
ed knife, punch a hole in each claw section and through the top and bottom of the body in a
few places. This allows steam to escape and thus reduces the tendency of the cooking crab to
pop hot oil into the air. I like to cook the soft shells in a Fry Baby of hot vegetable oil for 7 to
8 minutes. As a sandwich or as a dinner, our taste buds will tell us this is a “shell game” that
is indeed in our favor.
July 2017 I The Shoreline