The Horseshoe Crab: A Case for Conservation

by David King on August 29, 2012

horseshoe-crab When I was kid and travelled to Florida every winter, I inevitably collected a number of shells and other remains of marine life (including hermit crab shells, starfish, silver dollars, dried seahorses, and a small shark in a bottle, among others). I collected a lot of strange things when I was younger, rocks and stamps included (see: nerd).

One of the items I was particularly fond of was the exoskeleton of a horseshoe crab. I actually had a few exoskeletons of varying sizes. I was intrigued by them. There’s a reason they call these arthropods living fossils – in addition to having gone unchanged for an impressive 450 million years, they resemble something out of Jurassic Park. And their wisdom isn’t just in their age – there’s something about their appearance that speaks of deep history.

And while this ancient creature may not have crossed your sterilized human path, you have undoubtedly benefited from its curiously blue blood (which uses hemocyanin to carry oxygen, not hemoglobin). Their blood contains amebocytes, which are extracted and used by pharmaceutical and medical equipment companies to ensure their products (including vaccines and intravenous drugs) are free of bacterial contamination. Perhaps surprisingly, horseshoe crab blood offers the easiest and most reliable method for such a test.

Sadly, like many other true wonders of the natural world, horseshoe crabs are threatened by habitat loss. They enjoy the shallow waters of many receding shorelines around the world, and they have a difficult time breeding in captivity. Interestingly (and somewhat romantically), they’ll only breed in the same sands they were born in (i.e., if you literally collect some of the sand from the beach where they’re found and place it with them, they may just breed). Scientists are concerned and have been working on the problem for over a decade, but to little avail.

Needless to say, it’s a sad state that a creature which has endured continental shifts and countless climate changes would be threatened by us – by you and me. But that’s what’s happening.

In the end, it doesn’t matter if it’s a horseshoe crab whose blood is invaluable to vaccine production, or a poisonous frog whose glands contain a yet undiscovered cure for cancer. This creature is an icon of sorts – a representative of the natural world. And he is a silent spokesperson for conservation. If we can break the unbreakable, none of us is safe. If we can bring down 450 million years of survival, we should all be concerned.

The romantic in me finds this case particularly heartbreaking. A spirit which has remained unbreakable for so long is brought to its exoskeletal knees by a few decades of senseless and predictable climate change. But as I’ve said before, no creature should be deemed more valuable than another, and the same should be said for the horseshoe crab – who, after all, knows not the value of his blue blood.

But he has a lesson. It’s time to listen, people, to every thing, for inside us all is a haphazard product of evolution that remains vulnerable to environmental change. Inside us all is a case for conservation.

If you would like to help the horseshoe crab, visit this website and donate to the Horseshoe Crab Conservation Fund. The Ecological Research & Development Group (ERDG), founded in 1995, is a non-profit wildlife conservation organization whose primary focus is the conservation of the world’s 4 remaining horseshoe crab species. Numbers are in serious decline, so please do what you can to help!

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Moyez August 29, 2012 at 4:21 am

Love this write up…..:) thanks for sharing such great work!


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