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Sea Stats - Horseshoe Crabs

Sea Stats - Horseshoe Crabs

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The horseshoe crab is one of Florida's most mysterious and fascinating creatures. Although extensive research has been conducted, much is still unknown about this animal.

This publication discusses the horseshoe crab species Limulus polyphemus, one of four species of horseshoe crabs and the only species found in North America. Topics covered include distribution and habitat, description and anatomy, reproduction and life history, importance of horseshoe crabs, threats, and current management and research efforts.
The horseshoe crab is one of Florida's most mysterious and fascinating creatures. Although extensive research has been conducted, much is still unknown about this animal.

This publication discusses the horseshoe crab species Limulus polyphemus, one of four species of horseshoe crabs and the only species found in North America. Topics covered include distribution and habitat, description and anatomy, reproduction and life history, importance of horseshoe crabs, threats, and current management and research efforts.

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he horseshoe crab is one ofFlorida’s most mysterious andfascinating creatures. Althoughextensive research has been conducted,much is still unknown about thisanimal. Horseshoe crabs belong to aclass of animals called Merostomata,a group more closely related to spidersand scorpions (Class Arachnida) thanto true crabs (Class Malacostraca).Unlike true crabs, horseshoe crabs do not possess antennae,and they have seven pairs of appendages, whereas truecrabs have only five pairs. The fossil record suggests that theancestors of horseshoe crabs were common about 350million years ago, long before the age of the dinosaurs.Physically, horseshoe crabs have changed very little sincethen, making it no surprise that horseshoe crabs are oftencalled “living fossils.” Tolerant of extremes in temperatureand salinity and resilient to environmental changes,horseshoe crabs can survive up to one year without eating.
Distribution and Habitat
Only four species of horseshoe crabs exist today, three ofwhich are found in the western Pacific Ocean, from Japan toVietnam. The fourth species,
Limulus polyphemus
, is found inNorth America along the Atlantic and gulf coasts from Maineto the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico.North American horseshoe crabs are most abundant intemperate waters, especially off the coast of the mid-Atlanticstates, including Delaware,Maryland, and New Jersey. InFlorida, horseshoe crabs are aconspicuous part of the marineecosystem. Visitors to Florida’sbeaches have more than likelyseen these creatures emergingfrom the water to mate and layeggs. Horseshoe crabs nest onsandy beaches with low waveaction. When not spawning, horseshoe crabs can be foundin water up to thousands of feet deep.
Description and Anatomy
One of the most notable features of the horseshoe crab isits alien-like body, which, unfortunately, gives this animalan unfavorable reputation. In fact, the horseshoe crab wasmost likely given its scientific name,
Limulus polyphemus
,because of its odd appearance—
means a little“askew” or “odd” in Latin, and
is the name of thegiant cyclops of Greek mythology. Despite its fearsome lookand name, the horseshoe crab is actually harmless.The body of the horseshoe crab is divided into threeregions: the cephalothorax, the abdomen, and the telson. Thecephalothorax, covered by the carapace, or shell, is thelarge anterior segment of the horseshoe crab. The carapaceprotects the legs and organs of the horseshoe crab and alsokeeps the animal upright in rough waters. Located on top ofthe carapace are two lateral compound eyes that are used
Scientific name
Limulus polyphemus
Up to two feet in width. Males are about one-third the size of females.
Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico, from Maine to the Yucatan Peninsula
Juveniles live on sandy intertidal flats and move farther inshore when they become adults
Poorly understood, but there is growing concern that horseshoe crabs might beoverharvested, and their numbers are declining in some mid-Atlantic states
Living Fossils
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation CommissionFish and Wildlife Research Institute
to detect movement and locate mates. Each compound eyecontains thousands of photoreceptor clusters calledommatidia. Horseshoe crabs also have eight otherphotoreceptor-containing structures located on various partsof their bodies, bringing their total number of eyes to 10.Signals from photoreceptor cells to the brain influence thehorseshoe crab’s circadian rhythm (inner clock) and variousdaily physiological processes.The underside of the horseshoe crab consists mostly ofpairs of appendages. The anterior-most appendages arecalled the chelicerae and are used for feeding. Food is pickedup by the chelicerae and passed to the mouth, locatedbetween the bases of the legs. Food is then passed throughthe digestive system and expelled through the anus, locatedon the underside just in front of the tail. The middle four pairsof appendages are walking legs and have small claws at theends. In males, the first pair of walking legs have modifiedhook-like structures that are used to attach to females duringmating. The last pair of appendages (pusher legs) in bothsexes are brush-like and are used for movement on land andfor digging.The abdomen is the middle body region of the horseshoecrab and is attached to the cephalothorax by a simple hingejoint. The underside of the abdomen consists mainly ofrespiratory and reproductive structures, the most visible ofwhich are the book gills. The first pair of gills have beenmodified into the operculum, which bears the openings ofthe genital pores where eggs and sperm are released duringmating. The operculum covers the five other pairs of gills,which are used for respiration. The horseshoe crabcontinuously moves the book gills to keep oxygenated waterflowing around them. The book gills are also used as paddlesduring swimming.The third body region of the horseshoe crab is thetelson, or tail. The telson is connected to the abdomen by aball and socket joint, which allows the tail to move in multipleplanes. Contrary to popular belief, the spike-like tail is notused as a weapon. Horseshoe crabs often use their tails toright themselves when accidentally overturned. There is noevidence that the tail is ever used for defense against thehorseshoe crabs’ few natural predators, such as loggerheadsea turtles and tiger sharks.
Reproduction and Life History
In Florida, horseshoe crabs may mate year-round, althoughspring is the peak season. Horseshoe crabs aggregate on low-energy beaches to mate and nest, with nesting activityusually occurring at high tide during the three days beforeand after a new or full moon. Male horseshoe crabs are aboutone-third the size of females and typically move parallel tothe shoreline on sandy flats to seek out and intercept femalehorseshoe crabs as they approach the beach. A successfulmale will attach himself to a female using his hook-likefront appendages. Together they will crawl onto the beach,where spawning takes place. The male fertilizes the eggs asthe female lays them in a nest in the sand. In a singlespawning, called a clutch, female horseshoe crabs lay anaverage of 3,000 eggs, but they have been known to produceup to 90,000 eggs in a season. During this time, single malesoutnumber mating pairs and swarm around a mating pairtrying to fertilize the eggs of the female. Horseshoe crab sperm
remains viable in salt water for up to 96 hours; sperm fromunattached males often fertilize some of the eggs. Thus,several different males may father eggs from a single eggclutch. To ensure reproductive success on additional visitsto beaches, males will often remain attached to a female forseveral weeks at a time.Horseshoe crab eggs are green and only about 1/16 inchin diameter when they are laid. Over a period of two to fiveweeks, the embryos develop into larvae. The larvae remainin the sand for several weeks before they emerge and moltinto juveniles that resemble adults with proportionallysmaller tails. Young horseshoe crabs are good swimmers butspend most of their time on sandy intertidal flats within afew yards of the beach. For up to one week, they rely onnutrients from their yolk sacs while their digestive systemsdevelop. Larger juveniles are found lower in the intertidalzone, and subadults are at the seaward limit of the intertidalzone. Adult horseshoe crabs live offshore, except whenspawning.Horseshoe crabs use their chelicerae to feel around thesandy bottom for prey such as mollusks, polycheate worms,and dead fish. Like other arthropods, horseshoe crabs growby periodically molting their exoskeletons. At each successivemolt, horseshoe crabs grow 20–30% by pumping in waterto expand their new shells, which harden within 24 hours.Male horseshoe crabs reach sexual maturity after about 16molts, which can take between 9 and 12 years. Females needto molt at least one additional time to reach maturity. Aftermaturity, horseshoe crabs stop molting and may live up to20 years.In general, horseshoe crabs do not travel long distances.Tagging studies of horseshoe crabs indicate that males returnto spawning beaches more frequently than females, andmost horseshoe crabs do not move away from these beachesduring the breeding season. In one study in Apalachee Bay,Florida, the average distance traveled for 40 tagged horseshoecrabs was 4.1 nautical miles. However, one individual traveled22 miles in only 13 days.
Importance of Horseshoe Crabs
Horseshoe crabs are an important component of the ecologyof coastal communities. Like most organisms that producethousands of eggs in a relatively short season, few of theireggs and offspring survive to maturity. Horseshoe crab eggsare an important food source for many animals, includingmany species of fish. Migrating shorebirds rely heavily uponthe eggs during the nesting season. Without an abundantsupply of horseshoe crab eggs, these migrating birds wouldnot acquire the energy reserves needed to fly their longmigration routes. In the mid-Atlantic states, more than 50%of the diet of many shorebird species consists of horseshoecrab eggs. In Florida, Ruddy Turnstones, Sanderlings, Dunlins,Short-billed Dowitcher, and many species of gulls have beenseen foraging on horseshoe crab eggs.Marine invertebrate species, such as barnacles, mussels,sponges, and flatworms, attach to the carapace of horseshoecrabs. These organisms are left on the exoskeleton when thehorseshoe crab molts, leaving the horseshoe crab clean ofexternal organisms until more settle and attach themselvesto the shell.Humans harvest horseshoe crabs for many differentuses. Horseshoe crabs were once widely used as fertilizerfor crops, which caused a decline in population sizes. Thehorseshoe crab fertilizer industry came to a halt in the1950s, partly because of the production of synthetic fertilizers.Horseshoe crabs have also been used as feed for chickens,hogs, and other livestock. However, this practice has stoppedbecause the horseshoe crab feed negatively affected theflavor of the meat. Currently, horseshoe crabs are heavilyexploited in the bait fishery. Horseshoe crabs are used as baitin the American eel and whelk fisheries along many partsof the Atlantic coast. Eel fishermen use mostly femalehorseshoe crabs, whereas whelk fishermen use both malesand females.When harvesting of horseshoe crabs for bait began inthe mid-1970s, landings averaged about 50,000 pounds peryear. By the mid-1990s, landings averaged over 670,000pounds per year. At this time, conch fishing increaseddramatically, and horseshoe crab landings peaked at morethan 6.8 million pounds in 1998. During this year, a federalmanagement plan was developed, and thereafter landingsdecreased each year to just over 600,000 pounds in 2005.In Florida, live horseshoe crabs are also collected by themarine life industry for resale as aquarium or research or-ganisms. In 2005, no horseshoe crabs were harvested for baitin the state, but more than 22,000 were taken by marine lifefishers. Most of these horseshoe crabs were small juveniles.Horseshoe crabs are also important to biomedicalresearch. The horseshoe crab is the most well-studiedinvertebrate in the world, and several Nobel Prizes have beenawarded to researchers based on their work on horseshoecrabs. During the past 50 years, research on the compoundeyes of horseshoe crabs has led to a better understanding ofhow human eyes function. Researchers have also discoveredthat chitin, which makes up the horseshoe crab’s shell, can

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