I went down to the water’s edge to watch the sunset over the Gulf of Mexico and grabbed a few photos of the sun setting behind one of the tree islands in the Ten Thousand Island area off the coast of Florida. Something near my feet caught my eye. I turned my camera from the vista before me and snapped shot after shot of something I’d never seen before.
“I’ve only seen them dead before,” the man said.
“They probably weren’t dead horseshoe crabs, but only the shell that they shed many times during their lifetime,” I said.
He took some photos, but his partner turned toward the sunset. I know the horseshoe crab isn’t one of the sexier beach critters. Probably not even close to the top 100, and would even fall further if folks knew they’re actually not a crustacean, but more closely related to the spider.
They’ve also been on earth millions of years before the dinosaurs. Their story is one I love about the connections in nature, but it also shows the fragility of our environment. The Delaware Bay’s horseshoe crab population began declining in recent years because of over-harvesting. They make great bait for commercial fishermen, and scientists have culled them for research because of their blue blood, which contain important antibodies.
Not only did it endanger the horseshoe crab, but also endangered the species that depend upon their eggs, such as a little sandpiper known as the red knot. The red knot flies nearly 10,000 each year as it makes it way from the Arctic down to South America. Along the way, it stops in Delaware Bay to fill up on fuel–the old, unhatched eggs of the horseshoe crab.
Scientists discovered the dwindling population of the red knot in 2005, when its 100,000 population suddenly dipped to 7,500. In recent years, the harvesting of horseshoe crabs in Delaware Bay has been halted or is at least highly regulated. Hopefully both populations of wildlife will survive.
If what I saw on the beach in the Everglades is any indication, the population may be doing all right these days.
“What are they doing here?” the man asked.
His partner suddenly came back from watching the sunset to catch a glimpse of copulating horseshoe crabs.
Maybe these creatures are sexy after all.