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,
, 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,
,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
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
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation CommissionFish and Wildlife Research Institute