Animal News Desk / Cathy Kangas
I believe that in tandem with treating animals with respect and care we should also do everything possible to preserve the species whether it be wolves, tigers or, as residents of Connecticut, the horseshoe crab.
Sacred Heart University in Fairfield has a fascinating academic and community program designed to increase public awareness of the horseshoe crab, its connection to the Long Island Sound ecosystem, and our health and wellbeing.
Known scientifically as Limulus polyphemus, the horseshoe crab has existed for more than 300 million years. Because they have kept the same body plan for millions of years, they are sometimes referred to as living fossils. During the Paleozoic era, horseshoe crabs survived several mass extinctions including the K-T event that killed off the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. They also survived the `mother of all extinctions,' 250 million years ago, at the end of the Permian period, The horseshoe crabs have survived when some 90 percent of the planet's species were wiped out. The big question is, will they be able to continue to survive by sharing their habitat with humans?
The horseshoe crab research project at Sacred Heart began in 2003 with start-up funds from the Long Island Sound License Plate Program. Under the direction of Dr. Jennifer Mattei and Dr. Mark Beekey of the Department of Biology, students and community volunteers physically tag the horseshoe crab and then place them back in their natural environment. The researchers work closely with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Maryland Fishery Resources Office who supply the tags and field calls from the public. They also supply certificates and pins to all who participate. The Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection also help with training and permitting volunteers. These tags are used to find answers to questions such as: Do females come back to lay eggs on the same beach every year and which habitats are critical for breeding?
What can we learn from the horseshoe crab? Extensive research has been conducted on horseshoe crabs with respect to their eyes and vision. The 4-inch long optical nerve turns out to be an exceptionally simple model for investigating how the human eye functions. A component of the Limulus shell, chitin, has been used to manufacture dissolvable surgical sutures and development of dressings for burn patients. The copper based, blue blood of the horseshoe crab has been found to be even more remarkable and worth millions of dollars. Extracts from the blood are used to test vaccines and medical implants for the presence of bacterial toxins. When you get your flu vaccine this fall thank a horseshoe crab for your good health.
Horseshoe crabs are also extremely important to our local environment. They play a key role in the survival of a number of migratory shorebird species that consume their eggs to fuel their flights north. Numerous creatures such as blue mussels, barnacles, bryozoans and sea strawberries all live on the shells of horseshoe crabs.
Sacred Heart University relies on students and community volunteers to participate in its study of the horseshoe crab by tagging the crabs and releasing them back into the environment. So far, this community research project has found that the horseshoe crabs of Long Island Sound make up one large population. The crabs in Greenwich are closely related to the crabs as far away as Groton as well as across the Sound in Mount Sinai, N.Y. Tag returns reveal that the horseshoe crabs can live at least 18 years and they do not pay attention to state boundaries as they move around. However they do like living here, 98 percent of the tagged crabs in Connecticut that are recaptured are found within the Sound. This is a great opportunity to get your children involved in a research project which is both interesting and educational.
If you would like to become involved with horseshoe crab conservation on a beach near you, contact Mattei at 203-365-7577 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Saving the horseshoe crab may seem like a small thing, but in reality they are vitally important to our ecosystem in Long Island Sound.