Getting on the Good Side

The oft-scorned horseshoe crab is winning human friends

Shore Stories

August 31, 2006|By John Woestendiek | John Woestendiek,Sun Reporter

SLAUGHTER BEACH, Del. — SLAUGHTER BEACH, Del.-- --Of all the strange creatures at the beach - jellyfish floating like ghosts in the waves, blood-sucking deer flies searching the sand for human flesh, gold chain-wearing middle-aged men prowling the nightclubs - none has creeped out as many vacationers as this one.

With an appearance many find hideous, a personality that's hard to locate and a tendency to be dead or dying when it does come ashore, it's no wonder this decidedly uncuddly bottom feeder never made a very good first impression on the public.

Beachgoers may "oooh" at the sight of a soaring pelican. They may "ahhh" at the sight of dolphins playfully splashing in the sea. But, when it comes to horseshoe crabs, if the species aroused any emotion it was traditionally "yuck," "Is it alive?" or "Johnny, don't touch that!"

Unlike dolphins, terrapins, shorebirds, even seagrass, it had no groups devoted to its well-being, at least not until the late 1990s. And given its lowly position on the cute scale, its likeness was far less apt to be merchandised on tumblers, towels, T-shirts or other seashore souvenirs.

What little respect the horseshoe crab did have - outside of scientists and environmentalists, who have long marveled at the engineering and longevity of the species (it predates dinosaurs) - was limited to a few groups: bird-lovers (for the eggs that sustain migrating shorebirds), watermen (who view them as bait) and biomedical companies (which covet their blood for use as a high-priced detector of endotoxins).

Other than those who wanted something from it, the misleadingly named horseshoe crab - it's not a crustacean, but an arachnid - was the Rodney Dangerfield of the seashore: chomped on by sharks, dragged up from the bottom of the sea for use as bait, ground into fertilizer for farmers, milked of blood by medical labs, washed ashore upside down by waves, pecked to death by seagulls, shunned by tourists, or, worse yet, abused by thoughtless teenagers who flung them across the beach by what they thought were their tails.

Not even its coat of armor was enough to protect it - much less give this too-ugly-to-love creature what it needed: someone to love it for itself.

Or at least a good publicist.

Horseshoes, anyone?

The frolicking in Slaughter Beach begins even before summer vacationers arrive.

Starting in May, on both the bay and beach sides of the island, hundreds of thousands of horseshoe crabs come ashore to spawn in the sand. At its peak, the phenomenon can look as if the shores are being invaded by troops, or at least their helmets.

A female will drift ashore followed by a male, or two, or even five. She will lay 20,000 or so olive green eggs, then drag the males, only about a third her size, over to fertilize them.

"It's an incredible orgy when you actually see it," said Sally Boswell, education and outreach coordinator for the Center for the Inland Bays, one of several organizations working to increase the public's appreciation of the horseshoe crab.

Few towns on the East Coast are more inundated with horseshoe crabs than Slaughter Beach. About 200 humans live there year-round, but nearly 260,000 horseshoe crabs spawned there in 2004, according to one state survey.

"We're kind of the epicenter of horseshoe crab spawning," said Mayor Frank Draper, adding that most residents have grown used to the annual spring arrival and summer-long presence of horseshoe crabs. Some use the abandoned shells - the horseshoe crab sheds them repeatedly while growing - to adorn their driveways.

Tourists, however, have been slower to accept horseshoe crabs, especially when it comes to sharing the beach with dead ones, which routinely wash ashore and produce a foul odor while rotting in the sun. For 10 years, the town paid a company to clean them off the beach, but this year it halted the practice.

"It wasn't that big of a thing," Draper said. "Most local people weren't in favor of it anyway, just people who recently moved here from places like Baltimore and wanted streetlights and curbs and horseshoe crab cleanups and other unnatural things."

Slowly though, Draper said, the public's appreciation of the horseshoe crab has increased from the days he was growing up, when they were more often referred to as "king crabs" and, up until the 1960s, ground into fertilizer and feed.

As a result of classroom lessons, nature centers and an increasing knowledge of the horseshoe crab's value to both shorebirds and the medical world (three Nobel Prizes have resulted from horseshoe crab research), public opinion is catching up with Slaughter Beach.

It was in the 1980s that Slaughter Beach, in a turning lemons-into-lemonade kind of way, adopted the horseshoe crab as a mascot. Its image now graces town stationery, a municipal flag and the Fire Department's rescue truck.

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