Among the standout creatures of Long Island Sound, horseshoe crabs seem to lack charisma.
They don’t languidly bask on the rocks in winter like the mighty seals.
They don’t frolic and leap in midsummer like those playful dolphins.
They don’t surge through the waters in the fall like the powerful striped bass.
And yet, ask Stamford students or any student who has come to SoundWaters and they will tell you of the wonder and the majesty of the horseshoe crab. They know that what the lowly horseshoe crab lacks in pizazz it makes up in persistence.
The horseshoe crab has staying power. Largely unchanged over 450 million years, this creature has withstood five mass extinctions, outlasting the dinosaurs and the dodos.
The horseshoe crab is a model of adaptation and resilience. While currently threatened by over fishing (for food, bait and pharmacology), the horseshoe crab is increasingly protected, with conservationists celebrating its role within the ecosystem as a key food source for migratory birds.
The Horseshoe Crab is a tremendous teacher. Generations of students have studied this surprisingly complex creature to understand adaptions ranging from camouflage (it blends in at the rocky shore) to protection (its shell is protective) to biochemical (its copper-based blood attacks invaders).
The horseshoe crab also teaches about the potential of wildlife to aid humankind – an extract of their blood can detect the presence of toxins in medical devices and vaccines – as well as the tendency of humans to overuse nature-based remedies and undermine species’ health.
Each spring, horseshoe crabs crawl out of the Sound to lay millions of eggs. Some will be eaten by passing birds, providing critical food that fuels extraordinary migrations. Others will hatch and become zooplankton that move in the tides. Some of these zooplankton will be eaten and support other species and some of these tiny creatures will grow and thrive and eventually return to these beaches years from now as mature adults.
So, upon closer inspection, it’s not that the horseshoe crab lacks charisma, it’s that we overlook it. There is majesty in this seemingly simple animal and so much that we can learn. The lessons of the horseshoe crab center on resilience, persistence, conservation, food webs and more.
Spring horseshoe crab activity is easy to miss. The creatures move slowly onto the beach, but only at the right time, mostly at the high tides around full moons throughout the spring. If you have the opportunity, slow down and catch the moment; its unforgettable- even charismatic.