specimens of the fossil Mesolimulus walchii and modern Tachypleus gigas
Mary Parker

E15: Nature’s First Historian

Herodotus may be the first human historian, but to travel farther back in time we need our fossil friends, the ever-evolving horseshoe crabs

Where are your monuments, your battles, martyrs?
Where is your tribal memory? Sirs,
in that grey vault. The sea. The sea
has locked them up. The sea is History.

--Derek Walcott, “The Sea is History”

In order to understand the geologic and climactic patterns that will shape our planet’s future, we must understand our long past. The fossil record provides a unique library of life in the past, and as one of a handful of “living fossils,” horseshoe crabs are an important chapter in the book of life.

James Lamsdell, PhD, holding a horseshoe crab.
James Lamsdell, PhD, holding a horseshoe crab.
For this month’s episode of Sounds of Science, I interviewed James Lamsdell, Assistant Professor of Paleobiology at West Virginia University. He has studied the fossil record to research macroevolution and paleoecology and has published several articles on fossil horseshoe crabs.

“The horseshoe crabs are unique in passing through every single major mass extinction event in Earth's history,” Lamsdell said. “You can use them as a weather vane to see what's going on and check in with them every now and then.”

At the Museum of the Earth in Ithaca, New York, you can see the exhibit Survivors: Up Close With Living Fossils through the end of the month to learn more about the horseshoe crab’s long history. The Museum tells the story of the Earth as a system, from lifeless rock through today’s ecological challenges, stopping at significant fossil discoveries along the way. It tells this story through the lens of New England’s geologic history, but touches on events that affected the whole world.

Lamsdell participated in an event at the Museum called Darwin Days, which this year focused on living fossils like horseshoe crabs. At the event, Lamsdell spoke about the crab’s fossil record and covered many of the same questions we discuss in the podcast.

“They've got some excellent fossils and they actually had some modern horseshoe crabs in a tank, which was great to look at,” said Lamsdell about the exhibit. “They had some younger ones to one side and adults on the other side. It was really cool to see how the morphology of the younger forms look like some of the specimens we find in the fossil record, and this also speaks to the importance of changes in development and leading to new morphologies throughout evolution.”

The Museum is run by the Paleontological Research Institution (PRI), an affiliate of Cornell University, which boasts one of the largest collections of fossils in North America. PRI is supported by donors and organizations such as the National Science Foundation, and also relies on corporate sponsors like Charles River Laboratories, who provided funding for their living fossils exhibit. Charles River also provided expert advice on how to handle and care for the live horseshoe crabs in the exhibit’s touch tank, and provided plush crabs to sell to support PRI’s education and conservation work.

Listen to this month’s episode of Sounds of Science to learn more about the long, long history of the horseshoe crab, their surprising stints in freshwater habitats, and the dangers of using the term “living fossil.” If you want to hear more about paleontology and Lamsdell’s research, check out his own podcast Paleo After Dark. (Main image is of specimens taken by Dr. Lamsdell in the Yale Peabody museum of the fossil Mesolimulus walchii and modern Tachypleus gigas.)

Sounds of Science is a monthly podcast by Eureka, with new episodes on the first Tuesday of the month. You can subscribe and download our episodes wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts. For even more scientific content follow Charles River on Facebook and LinkedIn and @criverlabs on Instagram and Twitter.