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Hermit Crabs’ Lesson on Wealth Inequality


STONY BROOK, January 3, 2020 Can hermit crabs teach us about a common global problem – wealth inequality? The answer is yes, according to a first-of-its-kind study published in the January issue of Physica A.

Lead author Ivan Chase, PhD, Emeritus Professor of Sociology at Stony Brook University, and his fellow researchers found that the distribution of the empty snail shells in which hermit crabs live was surprisingly similar to the distribution of wealth in human societies. They discovered this by taking a sample of nearly 300 hermit crabs, removing them gently from their shells, and measuring the weights of those shells.

Hermit crabs choose their shells and often discard old ones for new and better ones.

The team used a measure called the Gini coefficient to calculate the amount of inequality in the crabs and found it was similar to that in small-scale human societies such as hunter-gatherers and ancient farming communities.

“The forces that produce wealth inequality in humans are much more complex,” emphasizes Chase. However, he believes that by observing and documenting hermit crab activity with shell distribution and re-distribution, we may gain insights into wealth inequality, and the crabs themselves could serve as a model organism to study this complex and difficult problem in human society.

For more details about the wealth comparison study and the method used by Chase and colleagues, see this video produced by Stony Brook University student Alyson Hall titled Economy at the Beach.


About Stony Brook University
Stony Brook University, widely regarded as a SUNY flagship, is going beyond the expectations of what today’s public universities can accomplish. Since its founding in 1957, this young university has grown to become one of only four University Center campuses in the State University of New York (SUNY) system with over 26,000 students, more than 2,700 faculty members and 18 NCAA Division I athletic programs. Our faculty have earned numerous prestigious awards, including the Nobel Prize, Pulitzer Prize, Indianapolis Prize for animal conservation, Abel Prize and the inaugural Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics. The University offers students an elite education with an outstanding return on investment: U.S.News & World Report ranks Stony Brook among the top 40 public universities in the nation. Its membership in the Association of American Universities (AAU) places Stony Brook among the top 65 research institutions in North America. As part of the management team of Brookhaven National Laboratory, the University joins a prestigious group of universities that have a role in running federal R&D labs. Stony Brook University fuels Long island’s economic growth. Its impact on the Long island economy amounts to $7.38 billion in increased output. Our state, country and world demand ambitious ideas, imaginative solutions and exceptional leadership to forge a better future for all. The students, alumni, researchers and faculty of Stony Brook University are prepared to meet this challenge.



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