I am still in Mozambique, and will be here for a few more weeks, but I simply must take a quick break from describing African nature to highlight a spectacular phenomenon that is taking place right now along the eastern coast of North America – the mass spawning of the Atlantic horseshoe crabs (Limulus polyphemus). Watching these magnificent animals is to me one of the most beautiful natural events that one can witness, and I encourage everybody living on the East Coast to take a trip to the beach this and next month (this year the best time to see them are nights of May 24th, and June 9th and 23rd.) What follows is a short excerpt from my book “Relics” (Chicago University Press 2011), describing my experience of watching horseshoe crabs on the beaches of the Delaware Bay.
“As hundreds of biting flies did their best to drain us of every drop of blood, my friend and fellow photographer Joe Warfel and I stood on the beach, waiting for the spectacle to begin. The sun grew dim, and the high tide was nearing its peak. There were a few people on the beach when we first arrived, but by now they had all disappeared, and we were the only witnesses to what was about to unfold. I started to tell Joe how strange it was that nobody else stayed to watch, but swallowed a fly and decided to quietly enjoy the rest of the evening. First came the big females. Nearly all had males in tow. In the dimming light we could see spiky tails of hundreds more as they tumbled in the waves, trying to get to the dry land. By the time the sun fully set, the beach was covered with hundreds of glistening, enormous animals. Females dug in the sand, making holes to deposit their eggs, nearly 4,000 in a single nest, while the males fought for the privilege of fathering the embryos. Fertilization in horseshoe crabs is external, and often multiple males share the fatherhood of a single clutch. Equipped with a pair of big, compound eyes (plus eight smaller ones), capable of seeing the ultraviolet range of the light spectrum, male horseshoe crabs are very good at locating females even in the melee of waves, sand, and hundreds of other males.
Horseshoe crabs have been around longer than most groups of organisms that surround us now. A recent discovery in the fossil deposits of Manitoba, an interesting little creature named Lunataspis aurora, proves that horseshoe crabs quite similar to modern forms were already present in the Ordovician, 445 million years ago. By the time the first dinosaurs started terrorizing the land in the Triassic (about 245 million years ago), horseshoe crabs were already relics of a long-gone era. And yet they persisted. Dinosaurs came and went, the Earth changed its polarity and climate many times over, but horseshoe crabs slowly plowed forward. Yet during this time they changed surprisingly little. Species from the Jurassic were so similar to modern forms that I doubt I would notice anything unusual if one crawled in front of me on the beach in Delaware. Somehow horseshoe crabs had stumbled upon a lifestyle and morphology so successful that they were able to weather changes to our planet that wiped out thousands of seemingly more imposing lineages (dinosaurs and trilobites immediately come to mind.) But despite claims to the contrary by creationists and other lunatics, they kept evolving. Modern horseshoe crabs, limited to three species in Southeast Asia and one in eastern North America, differ in many details from their fossil relatives. We know, for example, that many, if not most of fossil horseshoe crabs lived in freshwater, often in shallow swamps overgrown with dense vegetation, and some might have even been almost entirely terrestrial. Currently only the mangrove horseshoe crab Carcinoscorpius rotundicauda from the Malayan Peninsula routinely enters rivers, and is the only species to lay eggs in fresh or brackish water.
The following morning Joe and I found the beach covered with horseshoe crab eggs. Well-rested and ready to start a bright new day the flesh-piercing flies attacked us with a renewed enthusiasm. Flailing our arms and swatting dozens at a time we went about flipping crabs stuck on their backs in the sand, and started to look for particularly big clutches of eggs. Although females burry the eggs in the sand, the returning tide washes out many of them. Freshly laid eggs are small, not larger then half a grain of rice. Surprisingly, the eggs grow as they develop, eventually becoming more than twice as large. This, of course, is impossible. The “growth” is an illusion, the result of the production of an external, thin membrane by the developing embryo. A fully developed egg, which at this stage has spent two weeks in the sand, resembles a tiny glass aquarium, with a petite horseshoe crab twirling inside, impatient to break the walls of its miniature prison. Once free, the larva (or at least the lucky ones) catches a wave back into the ocean and will spend about a week floating freely, before settling on the bottom of the shallow shore waters to begin life akin to that of its parents.[…]“