The Lemon-Yellow Fiddlers of Fiji

Sunrise Lautoka, Fiji
Sailing in to Lautoka

The cutest fiddle section this side of the international date line

When you think of Fiji, you don’t think of fiddlers. Drummers, perhaps. But the last thing I was expecting to see as I wandered around the town of Lautoka, on the Fijian island of Viti Levu, was a tiny yellow fiddle section, all playing their little hearts out along a gravelly bed beside the creek.

I almost didn’t see them. The lot of them—at least a hundred strong—covered an area about the size of a throw rug. But as I stood there photographing birds, a tiny movement caught my eye… and then hundreds of tiny movements, all waving more or less in concert. I looked down and spied them: lemon-yellow fiddler crabs, surely the most endearing little performing artists this side of the international date line.

Lemon-yellow fiddler crab on sand

I was actually standing right in the middle of their concert hall, and my first horrified thought was that I’d probably crushed the whole second string section with my size 13s. But I needn’t have worried; these players are nimble. I moved from side to side, and instantly the little crabs disappeared wherever my shadow came close, each into a perfect tubular hole, with only its strange little eyes-on-tentacles poking out. I carefully stepped back, pulled out my camera, and waited for the show to continue.

Fiddler crabs are a group of about 100 different species of small crustaceans that live along the shorelines of the warmer parts of the world. Their claim to fame is in their greatly-enlarged claw (just one; the other has to take care of all the fine motor tasks), an asset that the male waves ad infinitum to impress his prospective mates. Yes, this entire fiddle section is male, like some Karajan-era Berlin Philharmonic. The females saunter from suitor to suitor, choosing the male with the biggest claw, or alternately he who wields it most enticingly, size apparently not being everything in the crab world. It’s the combination of that big claw waving back and forth, and the smaller claw frantically sawing up and down below it, that earned fiddler crabs their name. (That smaller claw is in fact endlessly stuffing sand into the mouth to be gleaned of any tasty organic bits before being spat back out.)

Truth to tell, after watching the show for a good long while, I can tell you that the resemblance to violin playing is tenuous at best. I thought these little guys looked more like a host of grade-three students in spelling class: “I know! I know! Pick me! No, me!”

fiddler crab
Ready to duke it out with the neighbours

This particular species, Uca perplexa, graces the beaches of the western Pacific from Japan to Australia. They have been the subject of a fair bit of scientific study. It was discovered in Australia that they have, in fact, two signature gestures: the big, impressive wave and a much smaller jab that they use only in close quarters, to scare off rival males. And recently, some perceptive zoologist here in Fiji discovered the existence of dialects within that fiddling sign language: that small jab motion is markedly different here on the islands than it is back in Oz. I imagine the Australians’ gestures would be quite incomprehensible to outsiders, much like that nation’s English.

Watching them there in the warm tropical sun, I was struck by the tension that must define their days. Each performs frantically, desperate for notice, yet is constantly on the lookout for the wrong kind of attention: a passing reef heron who might bring its recital to a premature finale. It occurs to me that this dynamic—a desperate need for attention coupled with the crippling fear of it—defines the personality of some of the performing artists I know. Perhaps their name is more apt than I thought.

I hope you enjoy these images of the lemon-yellow fiddler crabs of Fiji.

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