The Strange Reality Behind Horseshoe Crabs

You’re on a beach, sun shining and the water a clear blue. You wade in up to your knees, eyes set on the horizon, when suddenly you feel something brush against your foot. At first, you think nothing of it, assuming it was just a shell or seaweed floating by… until you feel the grip of ten spiny legs wrapping around your toes!

But before you go sprinting out of the water screaming your head off, why not see what all the fuss is about? Chances are, you just made a new friend in the form of a harmless horseshoe crab — and chances are, the little guy or gal could really use your help.

Yet no one would blame you for getting spooked by one of these creatures. In fact, horseshoe crabs aren’t really crabs at all; they belong to the subphylum Chelicerata, making them more akin to spiders — or even dinosaurs.

That’s because horseshoe crabs have been around some 450 million years, making them actual living fossils. Unfortunately, these skittering shell-wearers don’t exactly inspire awe the way dinosaur bones at a museum do.

Jessica Lamirand / Flickr

Instead, the underside of a horseshoe crab more so calls to mind something out of the movie Alien. But despite their unsettling appearance, all those unusual organs and appendages do serve practical purposes — none of which include latching onto human faces.

Angel Schatz / Flickr

For starters, a horseshoe crab has ten eyes spread across its body, each pair with a unique role. Light detection and navigation are two obvious ones, though the median eyes, located at the front tip of the creature’s shell, are special.

Brave Wilderness / YouTube

These eyes are incredibly sensitive to UV light, especially the kind given off by the moon. So even in the darkest depths of the ocean, on the darkest of pitch-black nights, horseshoe crabs always know where they’re going.

Philadelphia Environmental Film Festival / Facebook

Along with ten eyes, they also have ten legs, though toward the front of most species of horseshoe crabs you’ll find two tinier appendages that resemble crab claws. Known as chelicerae, these little arms are used for scooping worms and mollusks into their mouth — at least, that’s one purpose.

Art / Flickr

Once a male horseshoe crab reaches maturity, the chelicerae morph into glove-like claspers that allow them to grip onto females during mating. A seemingly strange need, horseshoe crab breeding season can actually get pretty intense.

Wikimedia Commons

During the early summer months, when the tides are at their highest, thousands of horseshoe crabs migrate to shallow coastal waters to begin their mating ritual. The smaller males latch onto the larger females in preparation, though this isn’t like picking a date for the dance.

Gregory Breese / USFWS

Multiple males will often converge on a single female, sometimes up to five at a time. Luckily, when it comes to this enormous horseshoe crab love fest, it’s really the more the merrier.

PBS

When the female is ready, she digs a hole in the sand and lays her eggs, which usually number between 60,000 to 120,000. The male — or males — then fertilizes the eggs, leaving them to incubate until hatching occurs two weeks later.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast Region / Flickr

Yet while thousands of horseshoe crabs laying hundreds of thousands of eggs sounds like a recipe for a world overrun by creepy crawlies, this is far from the reality. In fact, horseshoe populations have been on the decline in recent years — and, sadly, we’re the cause.

Beachcombing Magazine

Horseshoe crabs have become incredibly valuable to the medical industry, as their blood contains cells called amebocytes that have proven effective in detecting bacteria in vaccines and other medical applications. Yet unlike humans, horseshoe crabs don’t give up their blood so willingly.

Charles River Laboratories

These creatures are harvested by the thousands and bled into jars, with their blood selling up to $15,000 a quart. Most are released back into the wild after they’ve finished bleeding, though by this point, the damage has already been done.

Timothy Fadek / Corbis via Getty Images

The horseshoe crabs lose around 30% of their blood from this process, leaving some females infertile and others too weak to even crawl back into the ocean. In fact, it’s even speculated that a large number of these creatures don’t return to the wild at all.

James St. John / Flickr

Instead, horseshoe crabs wind up sold to fisheries and other commercial fishing operations as bait for eels, whelk, and conches. They’re also harvested and sold to many Southeastern Asian countries as food, as their eggs are considered a delicacy.

For those that do make it back to the wild, shoreline development has also contributed to their decline, as the limited space and degraded habitat make it more difficult for these creatures to feed and breed. Many have called for horseshoe crabs to be bred in captivity, though this practice has proven nearly impossible.

UGA Public Service and Outreach – University of Georgia

For reasons unknown, these creatures will only mate in the sand or mud in which they themselves were hatched. Fortunately, wild horseshoe crab populations have a very good chance of bouncing back.

UGA Marine Extension – University of Georgia

Thanks to the discovery that Limulus clotting factor C (rFC), an enzyme found in the extract created from horseshoe crab blood, was more effective than the blood itself, researchers have begun developing methods of manufacturing artificial rFC. If successful, this process will all but end the mass harvesting of horseshoe crabs.

Jekyll Island

The use of horseshoe crabs as bait is also receiving pushback, with states like New Jersey and South Carolina banning the practice. Along with protecting the creatures themselves, these measures also seek to benefit the dwindling red knot populations that feed on horseshoe crab eggs during migration.

Gregory Breese / USFWS

These conservation efforts have inspired many others involving lesser-known aquatic creatures, including a certain “river monster” in the waters of Pennsylvania. For most that’d walked along the Susquehanna River, the creature was just a myth — that is, until a group of high schoolers decided to prove them wrong.

Pennsylvania Wilds

Anne Puchalsky and her peers first found out about the creature in her school’s science program, the Student Leadership Council. They found an old, plastic model of something that looked like a shell-less turtle and were instantly captivated. 

Dysart Unified School District

The creature lived in relative obscurity, with only a handful of environmental groups — and now a group of plucky teens — aware of its existence. Emily Thorpe, the program’s coordinator, knew the students wouldn’t learn much from inside a classroom.

Windham Raymond Schools

So, they turned to Pennsylvania’s Clean Water Institute for answers. They met Dr. Peter Petokas, who had spent two decades studying the elusive river creature, and he was happy to answer their questions. After all, no one had ever really asked before!

Dr. Peter Petokas/York Daily Record

The classroom model’s name was Harry, but the creature’s scientific name is Cryptobranchus alleganiensis — AKA, the Eastern hellbender. It’s a kind of salamander, but it looks like a regular salamander’s strange, aquatic cousin.

Brian Gratwicke

A rare expert on the species, Dr. Petokas knew better than anyone how under-researched this creature was. “No one knew where they were or how they were doing,” he explained. In actuality, the situation was far more dire than most thought.

No one really knew about the hellbender, and the fact that anyone really knows about it at all is borderline miraculous considering where the amphibian usually hangs out. An introverted species, they tend to live in places that are nearly impossible to access.

Himanshu Negi

They live under “rocks the size of cars,” said Petokas, and over the course of his 20 years of experience, he’d learned one fact that the kids weren’t prepared to hear: just because hellbenders are tough to find doesn’t mean they aren’t in danger.

Alexandra Mester/Post-Gazette

“Hellbenders breathe through their skin,” Dr. Petokas explained. “Any changes in the water will be reflected in the health of the species itself.” And as the students were quick to see firsthand, the river water wasn’t exactly crystal clear.

Mike Pinder

Petokas told the students that pollution, warming water, and impounded streams were seriously harming the hellbender population. With this in mind, his research team knew they had to switch tactics: research could no longer be their priority.

Instead, conservation became their one and only focus. Scientists raised hellbenders from eggs, microchipped them, and then released them back into the wild in order to track their movements and habits. And according to Petokas, these researchers needed all the help they could get.

Chesapeake Bay Foundation

That’s where the Student Council came in. They helped build hellbender shelters, a physically-taxing, thankless job. The students waited for some kind of confirmation that what they were doing was helping the creatures, though it never came.

Chesapeake Bay Foundation

The shelters would help in the long run, but what the hellbenders really needed was for people to know they existed. Thankfully, the students had an idea — and like most brilliant plans, it took shape at a crowded table at Panera Bread.

Their idea was simple: “We didn’t have a state amphibian,” said Emma Stone, the then-student president of the Council. How hard could it be to draft a bill? “It seemed bipartisan,” Emma explained. “We thought, ‘Who’s going to say no?'”

U.S. Department of Agriculture

In the restaurant, six high school students drafted the bill, their main argument being that the hellbender is “a positive symbol for water quality” in Pennsylvania. With Senator Gene Yaw sponsoring their bill, making their dream a reality seemed easy enough…

University of British Colombia

But the gears of government were clumsy, slow, and, as the students would soon learn, completely unjust. Despite their bill floating around the senate for months, a different bill quickly rose through the ranks — one that would stop the kids in their tracks.

A different representative quickly introduced a bill aimed at making a totally different creature — the Wehrle’s salamander — the state amphibian. “It was offensive,” said student Hanna Ryon. “We took it personally.” They were forced to go back to the drawing board.

Jason Malmont/The Sentinel

That’s when they had an epiphany. “We found out quickly that people love free stuff,” Hanna said. They made Hellbender Defender tees, temporary tattoos, and sugar cookies, as well as countless calls to representatives — which all fell on deaf ears. 

David E. Hess/PA Environment Digest Blog

Their hellbender bill died in committee in 2018, but the students were too determined to just give up. Even with some of the original Council members having graduated, they re-submitted the bill in 2019. This time, the gears of government worked in their favor.

David Herasimtschuk/Freshwater Illustrated

The bill passed with overwhelming support from both parties, and soon after, the students watched as the bill was signed into law. “It was so surreal,” Emma recalled. “We were high schoolers.” Even with this victory, though, the time for celebration was brief. 

BJ Small

According to Emily Thorpe, the designation did not come with any kind of state protection, meaning the hellbender, as strange and slimy as it is, still needs all the help it can get. Hanna has a word of wisdom for anyone who wants to help.

Tom Campbell/Purdue Agricultural Communication

“People say, ‘You’re too young to make a difference,’ but now we know that’s not true,” she said. After all, if a group of teenagers can spur environmental change, then there’s hope for everyone — even if it seems like the damage has already been done.

Dan Chapman/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Since the late ’90s, Lake Erie has endured a recurring pollution problem thanks to farmland runoff. Chemicals make their way into the lake and create something that sounds like bad news even for the scientific layman — toxic algae blooms.

Essentially, pockets of organisms form from an excess of nutrients — like nitrogen or phosphate — getting dumped into the water. Though an abundance of nutrients usually indicates a good sign, these masses have catastrophic effects on the environment.

Circle of Blue

See, once the microbes in the algae bloom die, they suck up all the oxygen in the water. In turn, all the living creatures depending on that oxygen die. The masses of oxygen-depletion have an appropriately sinister name — dead zones.

EPA

Algae blooms have plagued Toledo, Ohio, residents for years, but in 2014, the situation reached a new low. The city of Toledo announced a 3-day tap water ban because the toxicity had contaminated the drinking water.

This environmental hazard left 110 people sick and still another half million were stuck without safe drinking water. Given that over 11 million people receive their drinking water from Lake Erie, this incident showed the widespread ramifications of toxic blooms. But what could be done?

Joshua Lott / Reuters/ National Geographic

Speaking out and raising voices against the pollutions had earned no action from public officials. So local activists gathered in a bar to hash out their concerns over a few beers. They wracked their brains and finally hatched an outside-the-box solution.

Toledoans For Safe Water / Facebook

They pushed to win Lake Erie legal rights. Markie Miller of the Toledoans for Safe Water led the charge. She explained, “In 2014, we lost access to our drinking water, and we didn’t see any action [from] that. We wanted to do something for ourselves.”

Toledo Blade

The initiative to consider Lake Erie as a legal person marked the first case of Rights of Nature being instituted in the US. Surprisingly, though, it wasn’t unprecedented: other countries have pulled the somewhat unusual card to protect nature.

The Rights of Nature

The Rights of Nature movement has sprouted up all over the world. The movement aimed to show “Rights of Nature is about balancing what is good for human beings against…what is good for the planet as a world.” In fact, Lake Erie joined a long list of other natural resources looking for human level freedoms.

We Can International

Back in 2008, Ecuador prioritized this green legislation by recognizing the rights of Mother Nature in its constitution. The resolution passed with 64% of the vote, making it the first country to take this forward-thinking step.

DGR News Service

New Zealand followed suit in 2014 when they declared the Te Urewera forest to have personhood. Thanks largely in part to the efforts of the Maori peoples of the Tuhoe, who believe the lake holds utmost significance to their culture. The list continued growing.

From Press

India passed legislation affirming legal rights to the sacred Ganges and Yamuna rivers in 2017. The law qualified the rivers as “legal and living entities having the status of a legal person with all the corresponding rights, duties, and liabilities.” However, the status didn’t last.

DNA India

Just four months later, the personhood of the heavily polluted rivers was overturned in the High Court, which reasoned the legislation was “not practical,” despite Hindus believing the rivers to be holy. The rights of nature were certainly not a guarantee — so would this work in Toledo?

Hinduism Stack Exchange

Back there, the efforts of local activists sparked a special election. On February 26th, 2019, the people filed to voting booths to make their voices heard loud and clear. And they were.

Toledo Blade

When all the votes were tallied, the Lake Erie Bill of Rights Charter Amendment passed with 61% of the vote! Best of all, the bill’s passing happened at a crucial moment.

According to environmentalists, flood levels for the Great Lake were to surpass any other previous years, bringing water levels to an all-time high. Protecting the water from pollutants was necessary to avoid a recurrence of tainted drinking water.

The Weather Channel

A delighted Markie Miller gave a statement on behalf of the Toledoans for Safe Water about the historic law. “Beginning today,” she said, “the people of Toledo and our allies are ushering in a new era of environmental rights.” Still, not everyone was onboard.

NBC 24

Farmers, like Mark Drewes of Drewes Farm Partnership, cried out in protest of the bill, making moves the day after its passage to sue in hopes to see the bill of rights overturned as unconstitutional. Others protested in different ways.

Toledo Blade

Of the several lawsuits filed in protest of the new legislation, all made the argument that the Lake Erie Bill of Rights is an overreach of government regulation; that it opens farmers up to hefty lawsuits and puts financial strains on the ability to do their jobs and their very livelihoods.

Toledo Blade

Activist Tish O’Dell said, “We’re seeing the results of our narrow-mindedness, of our belief that nature is property and property ownership is the highest right. The hope is that by beginning somewhere, like Toledo, the conversation enlarges. You never know what’s going to be the tipping point.”

Toledoans For Safe Drinking Water / Facebook

As of 2019, the lawsuits were pending, so whether the Lake Erie Bill of Rights would retain its personhood remained to be seen. Still, the landmark case could inspire other environmental activists across the United States to protect ecosystems under climate duress.

Afar

Death Valley, California, for instance, has been the focal point of conversations about unbearable climates for decades. Yet recently, a new phenomenon occurred that had climate activists rushing to the desert.

Death Valley earned its name. In 1848, when a group of high-spirited prospectors took a bad shortcut, they trekked smack dab into the 3.4 million acres of parched, dirt, rock, and sand. Fairly soon, the groups were desperate to escape with their lives.

Flickr

The desolate land broke the travelers. After enduring many deaths in their group, they finally turned their backs on the desert. Before fleeing for good, they gave the place a name worthy of its terror. They muttered, “Goodbye, Death Valley.”

Flickr

Still, every year, Death Valley draws more curious thrill seekers than it deters. The once fear-inducing stretch of desert now serves as a major tourist stop. In 2016, 1.3 million visitors visited the National Park to witness its unrivaled landscape.

Full Suitcase

People flock to experience the intense climate for themselves. Death Valley delivers. It holds the title for the highest temperature on record, 134 degrees Fahrenheit, recorded on one unbearable day in 1913, in the Furnace Creek region of Death Valley.

Kristen Hwang / YouTube

In March of 2019, tourists seeking selfies in the blistering sun were surprised to find the landscape looking a bit differently than they’d seen in social media posts. Instead of the Star Wars reminiscent sand dunes and cracked plains sat an unusual weather anomaly.

Obsidian Architecture

On March 6th, 2019, Death Valley experienced a much-needed rainfall. Compared to your average downpour in less extreme climates, the rain seemed meager, but for the desert, this was flood city.

Flickr

For reference, the average rainfall in Death Valley for the month of March is 0.3 inches. Over the course of 48 hours, the thirsty plants were swimming laps in the overwhelming 0.84 inches of rain.

Flickr

When physicist and nature photographer Elliot McGucken heard about the massive rainfall, he immediately grabbed his camera and set off to the depths of the desert to capture the weather abnormality.

YouTube

Elliot knew that, back in 2015, Death Valley experienced a similar surplus of rain, over 2 inches. The aftermath saw the desert floor of Badwater Basin turned into an eerie motionless puddle. It stretched over the ground like a massive mirror reflecting rock and sky.

Tuxyso / Wiki Commons

So, Elliot drove through miles of desolate desert, hoping to snag some incredible photos of the rare environmental occurrence. But as he approached his destination, the previous site of the large still pool, Badwater Basin, Elliot found something that cut his journey short.

Flickr

With 20 miles to Badwater Basin, Elliot’s passage was blocked. He’d made it as far as Salt Creek, a long-since dried up lake bed. In the place of the shriveled expanse of Earth was a vast motionless lake.

Elliot McGucken / Instagram

For Elliot, this phenomenon surpassed his wildest expectations. The sheer size of the body of standing water put the Badwater Basin episode to shame. Elliot, mouth agape, stood to take in the scope of it all.

Elliot McGucken / Instagram

A representative of Death Valley National Park admitted to Elliot via email, “I believe we would need aerial photos to accurately determine the size,” which only added to the powerful supernatural vibe coming from this enormous rain puddle.

Strange Sounds

Luckily no spooky creatures climbed out of the lake, but there were serious concerns about the damage it could cause longterm. Dumping a huge quantity of water in the driest place on Earth has complications.

All this rain isn’t as big a gift to the desolate land as you’d expect, explained meteorologist Chris Dolce. “Because water is not readily absorbed in the desert environment,” he said, “even moderate rainfall can cause flooding in Death Valley.”

Elliot McGucken / Instagram

In less than a day, Death Valley was submerged with a third of its yearly rainfall. Compact soil and root systems of native plants block water absorption.”It’s like putting water on concrete,” said Todd Lericos of the National Weather Service.

Giphy

The result? Ephemeral lakes, lakes of water occurring in places that are usually dry. Nearby, Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, home to the Burningman Festival, sees a fair share of temporary bodies of water. Once evaporated, a layer of minerals are left coating the ground.

Ikluft / Wikicommons

The long term effects of the desert lakes are unclear, but they provide a glimpse into future climate trends. “It’s important to study a variety of physical and biological systems to gain a more complete understanding of the rates and magnitudes of past climate changes,” said researcher Kenneth Adams.

Medium

Instagramers and nature bloggers delight in documenting these weather events, but their increased frequency has scientists concerned it hints towards a more damaging environmental episode.

Max Pixel

Commonly referred to by experts as Atmospheric River 1,000, this massive storm occurs about every 150-200 years. The megastorm brings torrential downpours, triggering massive floods on a scale of hundreds of miles.

Flickr

According to the United States Geological Survey, ARkStorm realistically should be anticipated within the next two centuries. Floods would dramatically impact communities in California, displacing millions and causing billions in property damages.

Forbes

Scientists agree that for now, ephemeral lakes pose little threat to Death Valley’s environment. So, photogs like Elliot can snap pictures for pleasure, guilt-free. “Nature presents this beauty, and I think a lot of what photography is about is searching for it and then capturing it.”

Elliot McGucken / Instagram

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