Facts About Horseshoe Crabs and FAQ

Ancestors of horseshoe crabs date back to 445 million years--long before the age of the dinosaurs.

  

Horseshoe crabs nesting on Florida Beach
A typical view of horseshoe crabs nesting on a Florida Beach

 

The American horseshoe crab is a common sight on Florida's beaches.  Many people have seen horseshoe crabs but do not realize they are looking at one of the oldest animals on the planet. Often called "living fossils," horseshoe crab ancestors can traced back through the geologic record to around 445 million years ago, 200 million years before dinosaurs existed.  Horseshoe crabs are actually not true crabs at all, being more closely related to arachnids (a group that includes spiders and scorpions) than to crustaceans (a group that includes true crabs, lobsters, and shrimp).  Four species of horseshoe crabs exist today. Only one species, Limulus polyphemus, is found in North America along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts from Maine to Mexico. The other three species are found in Southeast Asia.

 

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A fossilized horseshoe crab

Despite inhabiting the planet for so long, horseshoe crab anatomy has changed very little over time because it has proven successful for the animal's survival.  Horseshoe crabs have a tank-like stucture consisting of a front shell called the prosoma, a back shell called the opisthosoma, and a spike-like tail called a telson.  Many people view horseshoe crabs as dangerous animals because they have sharp tails. In reality, they are harmless.  The horseshoe crab's tail is used primarily to flip the animal upright if it is overturned.  Though the horseshoe crab's shell is hard, it is very sensitive to stimuli.  The crabs are especially sensitive to light. They have 10 eyes, a pair of compound eyes on the prosoma, and "photo receptors" in other areas, primarily along the tail. 

*Never pick up a horseshoe crab by its tail, as it can harm the animal.  Instead, gently pick it up by both sides of the prosoma using both hands.

  

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A pair of horseshoe crabs in the "amplexus" position with the smaller male attached to the back of the larger female.                                                                             Credit:  Kay Levalier          

 

Horseshoe crabs are known for their large nesting aggregations, or groups, on beaches particularly in mid-Atlantic states such as Delaware, New Jersey and Maryland in the spring and summer, where their populations are largest. Horseshoe crabs can nest year-round in Florida, with peak spawning occurring in the spring and fall. When mating, the smaller male crab attaches himself to the top of the larger female’s shell by using his specialized front claws, and together they crawl to the beach. The male fertilizes the eggs as the female lays them in a nest in the sand. Some males (called satellite males) do not attach to females but still have success in fertilizing the female's eggs as they crowd around the attached pair. Most of this nesting activity takes place during high tides around the time of a new or full moon.

Horseshoe crab larvae emerge from their nests several weeks after the eggs are laid. Juvenile horseshoe crabs resemble adults except that their tails are proportionally smaller. The young and adult horseshoe crabs spend most of their time on the sandy bottoms of intertidal flats or zones above the low tide mark and feed on various invertebrates.

 

Why are horseshoe crabs important?

Horseshoe crabs are an important part of the ecology of coastal communities. Their eggs are the major food source for northward-migrating shorebirds, including the federally-threatened red knot. These shorebirds have evolved to time their migrations to coincide with peak horseshoe crab spawning activity, especially in the Delaware and Chesapeake bay areas.

  

red-knot
Red knots feast on horseshoe crab eggs.                                     Credit: Greg Breeze, USFWS

Many fish species as well as birds have been observed feeding on horseshoe crab eggs in Florida. Adult horseshoes serve as prey for sea turtles, alligators, horse conchs and sharks.

Horseshoe crabs are also extremely important to the biomedical industry because their unique, copper-based blue blood contains a substance called "Limulus Amebocyte Lysate", or "LAL".

Biomedical Bleeding
Bleeding crabs in a laboratory.  After bleeding, the animals are released back into the areas where they were captured. 

 

This compound coagulates in the presence of small amounts of bacterial toxins and is used to test for sterility of medical equipment and virtually all injectable drugs.  Anyone who has had an injection, vaccination, or surgery has benefitted from horseshoe crabs! Research on the compound eyes of horseshoe crabs has led to a better understanding of human vision.

Horseshoe crabs are also utilized in several fisheries.  The marine life fishery collects live horseshoe crabs for resale as aquarium, research, or educational specimens, and the American eel and whelk fisheries use horseshoe crabs as bait along many parts of the Atlantic coast.

Threats to horseshoe crabs and research efforts
Horseshoe crab numbers are declining throughout much of the species’ range. In 1998, The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission developed a Horseshoe Crab Fishery Management Plan that requires all Atlantic coastal states to identify horseshoe crab nesting beaches. Currently, with the help of the public, biologists at the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute are trying to document nesting sites of horseshoe crabs throughout the state. If you are see horseshoe crabs and would like to report a sighting, please visit the Report Sightings page for more information.

  

horseshoe crabs by a seawall
Horseshoe crabs attempting to nest where no beach exists

  

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS ABOUT HORSESHOE CRABS

Are horseshoe crabs really crabs?
No, horseshoe crabs are in a class by themselves; they are more closely related to spiders, scorpions, and ticks. They differ from true crabs in that they have no antennae and no mandibles (mouth parts for grinding food). Like spiders, they have a pair of chelicerae (small appendages for moving food into the mouth).

Are horseshoe crabs really ancient?
Yes and no, that idea comes from the fact that 445 million years ago, ancestors of horseshoe crabs were abundant. The anatomy of the species we have today is not much changed from those older forms. The life span of an individual horseshoe crab is also remarkable-it can live for up to 20 years.

Can a horseshoe crab hurt me?
Horseshoe crabs do not bite or sting. Despite the ferocious look of the tail, it is not used as a weapon. Instead, Horseshoe crabs use their tails for righting themselves if they are flipped over by a wave. They do have spines along the edge of their carapace, so if you must handle them, be careful and pick them up by the sides of the shell, not the tail.

What do horseshoe crabs eat?
They eat almost anything. Horseshoe crabs are mainly predators. They feed on small clams, crustaceans, and worms; however, they will also eat other animals and even algae. Because they have no mandibles or teeth, they crush hard food between their legs before passing it to their mouth. Like birds, horseshoe crabs also have gizzards for grinding food before it reaches their stomachs.

What is so special about horseshoe crab blood?
Only horseshoe crabs have a blood-clotting agent known as Limulus Amebocyte Lysate, or LAL, which clots in the presence of certain bacterial toxins. These toxins are difficult to detect by other means. The FDA requires the use of LAL to test all injectable and intravenous drugs produced in the U.S. The good news is that up to one-third of a horseshoe crab's blood can be removed without killing the animal.

Why do I see so many dead horseshoe crabs on the beach?
Horseshoe crabs commonly get overturned by high wave action during spawning and may not be able to right themselves.  Often this leads to the death of the animal (you can help them by gently picking them up from both sides of the shell and releasing them back into the water.)  Other observers have mistaken horseshoe crab molts for dead crabs. Like all arthropods (including crustaceans and insects), horseshoe crabs have a hard exoskeleton (shell) on the outside of their body. In order to grow, the crab must shed its old exoskeleton and form a new, bigger one. Unlike true crabs, which back out of their old exoskeletons, horseshoe crabs push forward, leaving their molts behind them, leaving a split in the front.

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A horseshoe crab molt, or exoskeleton


FWC Facts:
Sunshine bass are bred at FWC hatcheries by crossing white bass with striped bass. Approximately 1 million sunshine bass are stocked in Florida each year.

Learn More at AskFWC