Watching Horseshoe Crabs Grow Up
Mystic Aquarium’s Rearing Project teaches Connecticut students how these ocean arthropods contribute to health and safety every day.
With a goal to inspire people to become environmentally-responsible citizens who will act to protect and conserve ecosystems, we are often searching for that “aha” experience (or in this case, that “eureka” moment) that will motivate a person to action. Most recently, this experience happened on Sept. 18 when six teenagers from Mystic Aquarium’s Youth Conservation Corps shrieked in excitement (and posted on social media) as they saw the first horseshoe crab hatch after five weeks of incubating a nest of eggs. Since then, these tiny crabs have served as conservation ambassadors to over 25,000 visitors, staff and volunteers anxiously watching them slowly mature.
Horseshoe crabs are often termed “living fossils” as their lineage dates back 450 million years. Despite their legacy, there are major threats facing these species. The horseshoe crab population across New England has been dramatically diminished over the last several decades. As part of our ongoing efforts in local conservation, a team from Mystic Aquarium recently collected a small selection of horseshoe crab eggs, which will be reared at the aquarium. The Youth Conservation Corp. helped to determine that there are over 50 viable horseshoe crabs! We anxiously await their arrival as we strive to help replenish the local population!
The rearing project is the next step in the Charles River-Mystic Aquarium partnership which provides multiple opportunities to engage the community in horseshoe crab conservation education programming. Each spring and summer, families and community volunteers join Aquarium staff on visits to local beaches to find and tag horseshoe crabs that come ashore to mate and lay eggs. Throughout the moonlight walk, participants learn about horseshoe crabs and their role in the environment, and the current projects underway to help monitor the population.
Last year, participants had the option to continue to join us in our citizen science programming. Volunteers helped by participating in a beach cleanup where the monitoring events take place. Over 150 pounds of trash were collected by 60 volunteers in just three hours. From foam to fishing line and cigarette butts to single-use plastics, all collected items were documented by the volunteers. As more and more people are traveling to the local beaches each summer it has become increasingly more important for conservation organizations to better understand the origin of the debris found along the coast. This information provides the guidance needed to tackle this problem at its sources.
Community members were also invited to join Aquarium staff in a daytime beach walk to collect a small selection of horseshoe crab eggs to be reared at the Aquarium and ultimately at Stonington High School. Initially these fertilized eggs were cared for by the Aquarium’s teen youth group but a few weeks ago a small subset of the collection were shared with the AP Environmental Science students at Stonington. Prior to receiving the animals, these students participated in lab-based programming illustrating how marine products, such as Limulus Amebocyte Lysate, a vital aqueous extract from horseshoe crab blood, benefit human health and well-being. With a long term commitment from the school, these crabs will serve as an integral part of the new course curriculum, which uses these animals to explore the interconnectedness between human health and the ocean.
Whether it is participating in a classroom program, citizen science conservation initiatives or visiting the crabs on display at the Aquarium, these horseshoe crabs have served as a conduit for the community to gain a greater appreciation for the environment and to inspire individuals to become active environmental stewards.
For more information on the Mystic Aquarium’s horseshoe crab projects check out this recent article, and Eureka blog. For more information about the work that Charles River does related to horseshoe crabs, check out our dedicated microsite.