If you read about coconut crabs, you might come across this alleged factoid: the massive arthropods may have stolen the remains of Amelia Earhart and hidden them in their burrows. But where does this claim come from? And could coconut crabs really have hidden human bones?
The coconut crab (Birgus latro) is the largest land-dwelling arthropod in the world, able to grow up to nine pounds. This hermit crab is also considered a delicacy, and is quite rare in areas where humans live thanks to over hunting. It's found in costal regions throughout the Indian Ocean and South Pacific, including the area where Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan made their last report. True to their name, coconut crabs frequently feast on coconuts; their powerful claws can open a coconut shell, but they've also been observed eating animal meat.
But does that mean that, lurking somewhere in a coconut crab's burrow, there may be human bones? And could those bones really belong to Amelia Earhart?
Famed aviator Amelia Earhart disappeared in 1937, while attempting to circumnavigate the globe along the equator. On June 2, 1937, Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan took off from Lae, New Guinea, headed for Howland Island. Their last known reported position was near the Nukumanu islands, but they never reached Howland Island.
In 1940, British colonial officer Gerard Gallagher reported that he had discovered a partial skeleton along with an old sextant box on Gardner Island, which is now known as Nikumaroro, part of the Phoenix Islands in the Republic of Kiribati. During the initial search for Earhart and Noonan, Nikumaroro was suggested as a possible landing spot for Earhart's plane. The Phoenix Islands are located 350 miles southeast of Howland Island, and Nikumaroro in particular would have been visible from the air.
The partial skeleton discovered by Gallagher has since been lost, but in 1941, British colonial physician Dr. David Hoodless took measurements of the remains. His assessment was that the bones came from a male individual who stood five feet five inches tall. (Noonan was over six feet tall.) A more recent analysis of the measurements concluded that the bones belonged to a relatively tall woman of European ancestry.
There are two mysteries involving these remains. The most obvious is whose remains are they? There is circumstantial evidence that they could be Earhart's remains, but the evidence is far from conclusive. The serial numbers on the sextant box indicate that the sextant was a model that Noonan had been known to carry, and a cosmetics jar has since been found at the same site, one that resembles jars containing Dr. Berry's Freckle Ointment, which the freckled Earhart might have used. A rubber shoe heel manufactured in the 1930s was found, but it fit a size nine shoe, which would have been two big for Earhart. Bone fragments have been since found at the site were tested for DNA, but the testing proved inconclusive. And the debris field from Earhart's plane may have been spotted near the island.
Update: Many of the above claims come from TIGHAR, and there are individuals who are involved in maritime archaeology who dispute TIGHAR's claims. See the comment thread below with commenter MaritimeHistorian.
The other mystery is what happened to the rest of the skeleton? Gallagher discovered the following bones: a skull with the right zygoma and malar bones broken off; the mandible with only four teeth in position; part of the right scapula; the first thoracic vertebra; a portion of a rib; the left humerus; the right radius; the right innominate; the right femur; the left femur; the right tibia; the right fibula; and the right scaphoid bone of the foot. If other portions of the skeleton could be found, they could provide more clues to the identity of the person who died on Nikumaroro.
The claim that coconut crabs were responsible for dismembering and removing portions of the skeleton comes from Gallagher himself, who wrote in his report:
All small bones have been removed by giant coconut crabs which have also damaged larger ones. Difficult to estimate age bones owing to activities of crabs but am quite certain they are not less than four years old and probably much older.
"He didn't have much experience at all with coconut crabs," points out Richard Gillespie, Executive Director of The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR). "He probably only knew about coconut crabs from his experience on Gardner Island, on Nikumaroro, and he had only been living there for about a month when he reported that. Now the locals may have told him, 'Oh, coconut crabs will do that,' but whether they're right or not, I don't know."
In their effort to learn more about the Nikumaroro remains, the folks at TIGHAR have staged an experiment to determine whether coconut crabs—or any other wildlife on the island—move bones. During TIGHAR's Niku V expedition, forensic anthropologist Karen Ramey Burns and her team laid out a pig carcass near the site of the Gardner Island colonial village and filmed the results. The video below is a little gruesome, but it's also fascinating:
The light-colored animals swarming and stripping the meat from the carcass are strawberry hermit crabs, while the occasional dark shapes are coconut crabs. Incidentally, Gillespie says that Nikumaroro's strawberry hermit crabs tend to be shier around humans in places that once housed human villages—not so near the castaway site, where they will swarm anyone who lies down. At one point, in order to speed up the experiment, the researchers disarticulated the bones to see if any of the wildlife would carry the bones away. No coconut crabs were seen trying to carry off bones. In fact, the only crab that even attempted to lug a bone away from the carcass was a lone land crab:
Other literature on coconut crabs also fails to support the hypothesis that they carried off the castaway's bones. "We can't find any documented accounts of them actually taking things and leaving with them," Gillespie says. "We don't know that Gallagher was right when he made that assumption [that coconut crabs moved the Nikumaroro remains]. We don't know that he was wrong, either."
"All this evidence points to something weird happened on this island," Gillespie notes, explaining that the mystery of the Nikumaroro remains has attracted experts in a variety of fields, and the picture they paint of the island's ecosystem is more complex than what Gallagher reported about coconut crabs. There are a number of factors to consider when trying to figure out what happened to the rest of the skeleton.
One of those factors is the colonists who settled on the island in early 1939, before Gallagher discovered the remains. Gillespie points out that it's possible that the settlers had dogs with them, and those dogs may have been allowed to run free. In his experience as an aviation investigator, Gillespie has seen crash sites disturbed by dogs and human remains scattered. However, it's not certain that the colonists did, in fact, have dogs. There are no mentions of dogs in the records kept by the colonists, and Gillespie isn't sure dogs would have been mentioned even if they had been present on the island.
There is also other wildlife to consider. Polynesian rats (Rattus exulans) live on the island, and during drought periods, they can become quite aggressive in their search for sustenance. These rats, which are considerably smaller than Norway rats, wouldn't be able to carry off human bones, but given that 1938 was a severe drought year, they may form one component of the larger picture of what happened to the remains. The local lagoon is also a nursery for blacktip reef sharks, which sometimes bite humans, apparently mistaking humans for their natural prey.
If the remains do, in fact, belong to Amelia Earhart, there is yet another possibility. Gillespie imagines the following: "Let's say that both Earhart and Noonan survived [the landing], but were starving to death, and one of them died—Amelia died. Maybe Noonan resorted to cannibalism and that's why the body is portioned the way it is. Total speculation, but it's happened before."
It's the complexity of the mystery and all of the possible factors involved that keeps drawing Gillespie and the TIGHAR volunteers back to Nikumaroro. "We're doing aviation archaeology," he says, "but we find ourselves learning about British Imperial history, colonial administration, and coconut crabs, and shark behavior. It's part of what makes it so much fun."