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eight minutes to release, and she can lay as many as 88,000 eggs in a single season. Shorebirds and small mammals await


this largesse, gorging on the roe that has been deposited too shallow or accidently dug up by other spawning horseshoe crabs. As eggs wash into the surf, other predators await, creating a vital link in the food chain that ensures the survival of numerous species. Scientists estimate that less than one egg out of 130,000 survives to adulthood.


The soft, gelatinous eggs soon harden. Sunshine, sand, and seawater keep them incubated for two to four weeks. For the first few days the horseshoe embryos are invisible to the naked eye, but the eggs gradually swell until their outer shells burst. At this stage, tiny, tailless, horseshoe crabs growing within their chitin shells will shed their casings four times within each egg. The eggshells soon split open, spilling the tiny larvae into the nest. Dur- ing the next high tide, untold numbers wash into the bay.


Anatomy of a Horseshoe Crab


A short paddle and they settle to the bottom, borrowing into the soft mud where they dine on rich worms. In their first year they will molt five or six times, at which time they will resemble their adult relatives, measuring about two inches across. The tiny horseshoe crabs spend most of their time eating and growing, molting several times a year during their first three years. It takes seventeen or eigh- teen molts over a period of seven to ten years to reach adulthood.


The first thing most people notice about a horseshoe crab is its shell. Its body armor is comprised of a thick, flexible, chitin-rich shell that shields it from most predators. The curved shell allows it to plow through the bay bottom like a miniature bulldozer, as it hunts for algae, marine worms, small clams, and dead fish. Horseshoe crabs have three main body parts. The first, which gives the crab its distinctive horseshoe shape, is called the cephalothorax, which is hinged to the midsection or abdomen. This hinge allows the body to bend and flex as it swims. The third section is called the telson, or tail. Unlike other marine creatures with barbed tails, this telson is harmless and helps the crab plow through sand or mud by sweeping from side to side. If a heavy wave should flip the animal onto its back, the telson can also save the horseshoe crab’s life by flipping it upright by powerful


30 May/June 2017


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