The ungainly creatures’ importance to human health is often overlooked — except by the helpful folks who assist in their annual migration ashore
By Jeanne Shook | Photograph by Ariane Mueller
From the May 2018 issue
The horseshoe crab was walking the ocean floor long before the first T-Rex was hatched. In fact, this ungainly arthropod has survived half a billion years. And yet, one of the oldest living species on the planet doesn’t have a week dedicated to it on the Discovery Channel, or its own Facebook page (like Mary Lee, the great white shark). Dismissed by many as ugly and useless, this Rodney Dangerfield of sea creatures often “gets no respect.”
Well, in some quarters it does. Those who take the time to get up close and personal with the horseshoe crab know differently: This is an animal whose appearance belies its significance to mankind, and is worthy of not only respect but also our thanks.
“If you’ve ever had a flu shot, know someone with a pacemaker or joint replacement, or have given your pet a rabies vaccination, you owe a debt of gratitude to the horseshoe crab,” says Glenn Gauvry, founder and president of the Ecological Research & Development Group. “Vaccines, injectable drugs, intravenous solutions, and implantable medical devices, both for humans and animals, are tested for the presence of the life-threatening bacterial endotoxin using a test that comes from the blood of horseshoe crabs.”
But that remarkable anti-bacterial property doesn’t guarantee these blood donors’ protection. “The biggest threat to horseshoe crabs is ignorance and indifference,” notes Gauvry, who is trying to change all that. In 1995, in the absence of any horseshoe crab advocacy groups, he founded the nonprofit ERDG, a network of volunteers, academics and government agencies dedicated to the conservation of the world’s four horseshoe crab species (one in North America and three in Southeast Asia.) According to Gauvry, one of the keys to the creatures’ longevity is that they are “generalists” that can adapt to a changing environment. “It’s why they’ve survived 470 million years,” he explains. “If one thing goes wrong, it doesn’t wipe them out. … It’s been part of their successful model for so long.”