Crabbies (Not Patties)

Ah, horseshoe crabs.  You wouldn’t expect these creatures to inspire someone to wax nostalgic and mistily think of home, but for whatever reason, these critters make me want to be back in Delaware. 

I was fortunate enough to take part in a research project working with/on horseshoe crabs (Limulus polyphemus) while I was an undergrad.  The region where I went to school boasts some of the highest concentrations of American horseshoe crabs in the hemisphere. 

These crabs – which arent even true crabs, they’re closest to spiders and scorpions – are spread out all over the East Coast, including Florida and the Keys.  Usually they come on shore to spawn – somewhat like sea turtles – late in the spring, at night time, in huge masses of animals. 

I have very fond memories from the time I spent working on the research.  We would plan out our best days of attack by checking the moon and the tide schedules.  I would drive an hour just past midnight and meet up with the rest of the group on the beach.  It would be silent except for the sound of the surf and the soft clinking sound of crab romance. 

Sounds a bit risque actually… but it really was for science!  It was just such an overwhelmingly wonderful experience to feel as though my work really meant something in the conservation of an animal.  But these interludes were largely at night, with many crabs on shore. 

Photo: Females are much bigger. Males hitch on.

So, I was shocked to discover spawning horseshoe crabs in a shallow tidal area near my home yesterday afternoon.  Yes, in the sunshine, on a spit of land that is about three inches of exposed sand, and only a few pairs were present.  It was still wonderful to see them. 

Photo: Digging their nests in the wet sand.


Photo: These are what the eggs look like.  A photo from the days of research.

Its hard to believe they’ve been doing this dance for over 500 million years.  Long before the dinosaurs, coral reefs, land plants, and most of the continents were formed.  Who knows if they laid their eggs on land in those days, but it is still a sight to see hundreds of crabs swarm a beach to perpetuate the species.

Photo: Fossilized distant relative of Limulus.

Also odd with the view that afternoon was the lack of birds and other animals feeding on the eggs.  In the Delmarva region crab eggs are an important link in the food chain.  They serve as the primary fuel for migrating birds that use the area as a stopover, a way point and a gas station in effect.  There were no birds taking advantage of the lagoon crabs that day. 

Which of course makes me wonder why not?  And how did the birds for the Delmarva area ever figure out that it was a good place to stop?  How did it become an instinctual behavior for all this time? 

I have so many questions.  Maybe that’s why I have an attachment to these animals.  They were the first chance I had to learn to ask questions and to find the answers.  There’s something really powerful in learning to be a scientist, and in learning to take yourself seriously. 

Ah crabbies. 

Photo: Spawning beach.