Tuesday, November 22, 2011

From Out of the Past - Part III

          It seems safe to assume that most of what we know about native use of Limulus has been extrapolated from early European chroniclers.  By the same token, it was those same English naturalists who gave this creature the moniker “King Crab” due to its obvious similarities with edible crustaceans (crabs and lobsters) with which they were more familiar.  “King” was obviously used since the critter looked just like a regular crab«, albeit one that may have experimented a little too much with steroids.
            One of the English chroniclers of that time was Thomas Harriot – a highly respected biologist.  On a voyage to the New World in 1590 Harriot refers to these marine organisms as “Seekanauk” (a native American name for horseshoe crab).  He specifically states that they are a kind of crusty shell fish which is good meat, about a foot in breadth, having a crusty tail, many legs like a crab, and her eyes in her back.
            In reading Harriot’s words – “which is good meat” – I pondered whether this “shell fish” would have been a significant source of food for Native Americans.  I poured through stacks of research, but was only able to locate a single document issued by the University of Delaware College of Marine and Earth Studies and the Sea Grant College Program under the auspices of the Mid-Atlantic Sea Grant Programs and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.«  The report succinctly describes Native Americans’ use of horseshoe crabs and states in part, “Indians who inhabited our shores many years ago were the first to recognize the importance of the horseshoe crab. They ate the meat found in the opisthosoma, which contains the muscles that move the horseshoe crab's tail and possibly some organs in the prosoma, the front, semicircular part of the horseshoe crab.”  Whether the “meat” was barbequed, boiled, fried, steamed, roasted, grilled, braised, or sautéed prior to its consumption will forever be one of history’s great unknowns.  Try as I might, I could not locate any additional verification of this practice

« It wasn’t until 1881, when horseshoe crabs were no longer considered to be Crustacea that they were scientifically “kicked out” of the crab family.  But, by then, the name “horseshoe crab” had been firmly cemented in the minds of the public – so much so, that they have retained that misnomer ever since.
« (http://www.ceoe.udel.edu/horseshoecrab/HumanUse/nativeamericans.html)

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

From Out of the Past - Part II

          Let’s consider how this critter may have been used by early humans.  Unfortunately, we have little hard evidence about how the crabs in and around Delaware Bay were utilized by Native Americans.  There are two primary reasons for this apparent lack of knowledge.  The first was that the early settlers did not leave any written records of their lives, their settlements, or their basic survival skills (Keep in mind that this was long before the invention of the iPad).  Second, since chitin – the primary substance composing horseshoe crab shells – tends to deteriorate over time there are no physical remains of supposed tools, artifacts, or utensils that may have been used by tribes inhabiting the shorelines of what was to eventually become the Delaware Bay.  Thus, we are left with a certain degree of speculation and inferencing given what we know about how other cultures used components of their environment to survive (That’s scientific talk for “Hey, we’re sorta guessing here.”).
            Nevertheless, when the always vigilant Europeans came to these shores they recorded observations of native tribes – including, among other things, how those peoples employed horseshoe crabs.  Apparently, there are some records of native peoples using the telsons (tails) of horseshoe crabs as spear tips.  Lashed to ends of long poles, the spears would be used to fish coastal waters.  Natives would stand in a boat or dugout canoe with spear in hand.  Upon sighting a fish the spear would be thrown into the water and (hopefully) into a fish.  Said speared fish would then become dinner and the spears would be used again the next day to obtain another fish (same old, same old).
            Although historians are not certain, it seems reasonable to infer that the carapaces (shells) of horseshoe crabs may have been used to bail out leaky canoes.  As you can imagine, canoe technology in the 15th or 16th century was not as sophisticated as it is today.  This often meant a lot of leaky boats.  Since there weren’t a lot of canoe technologists around or handy dandy canoe repair kits, people who traveled by canoe often had to fend for themselves – similar, I suspect, to what early 20th century automobile travelers had to do when traversing the countryside.  The horseshoe crab carapace became, therefore, a most handy device – one that predates the bailing buckets now used on most of the boats plying the Delaware Bay.
            Beyond its use as a bailer, one can only imagine the other uses a horseshoe crab carapace would have served in a primitive society.  Possibilities might include a water basin, a soup or salad bowl, a cooking vessel, or a very distinctive head covering (“Hey, do you know you have a crab on your head?”  “You silly, that’s no crab – that’s my stylish new fedora!”).  You may wish to conduct your own scientific experiments by taking a mixing bowl out of your kitchen cupboard and experimenting with all its various uses (in the privacy of your own home, of course).

Monday, November 7, 2011

From Out of the Past - Part I

      Prior to the mid 1700s, horseshoe crabs were known by several different and quite common names.  These included “swordtail crab,” “saucepan crab,” “king crab” (frequently spelled “King Crabb”«), “piggy-back crab,” and “horsefoot crab” – its most common common name.  According to some scholars, it was referred to as “horsefoot” simply because its shape and the shape of a horse’s foot were quite similar (One can only imagine what it would have been called if it resembled the hindquarters of that same horse).  It wasn’t until 1758 when it acquired its now permanent and appropriately scientific title – Limulus polyphemus.
     I am certain that the biologists who first named this critter meant well, but they may have been just a little overly descriptive.  For example, Limulus means “a little askew or odd.”  You can just imagine a child with that name and the torture he would have to endure during recess time on the playground.  He would not be, as they say, a very happy camper.  And, to add further insult to that injury the critter’s species name – polyphemus – refers to the giant Cyclops of Greek mythology.  Living with a moniker that means “really weird creature with one eye” for a period of more than 350 million years is, indeed, a burden I would not want to carry throughout my evolutionary history.
     But, Limulus polyphemus it is.
     In more modern times the horseshoe crab has acquired an interesting array of names – some of which make sense, others which strain the bounds of credulity.  Here’s a chart of some Limulus monikers from around the world:

Kabutogani (meaning “horseshoe crab” in Japanese.  And, at least according to www.kabutogani.info “it is also a one-man electronic music project [whose] sound gets more and more abstract, using dry digital glitches along with textures and embryonic melodies.”  Which raises the question - Whatever happened to good old rock and roll?)
Canger jos cacerola
Learning Fish
Pan Crab
Piggyback Crab
Helmet Crab
Stinky Crab

« It seems as though the British have this odd linguistic habit of doubling their consonants in order to make certain words seem a little more important, a little more pretentious.  I find the practice quite annoying and wish they would stopp itt.
Polyphemus was a man-eating giant with a single eye set in the middle of his forehead.  He loved the sea nymph Galateia, but since she was not into one-eyed men, she spurned his advances.  When he discovered her in the arms of another, he unceremoniously crushed the suitor beneath a rock (sore loser!).  The hero Odysseus later found himself trapped in Polyphemus’s cave.  Angry at the intrusion, the Cyclops began to devour Odysseus’s men (the original finger food, I suppose).  However, Odysseus (ever the clever one), systematically plied the Cyclops with cheap wine and while he slept Odysseus pierced his single eye with a burning stake (always an effective remedy when your host is bent on consuming those close to you).  The blinded Polyphemus tries to sink Odysseus' escaping ship with rocks, but failing in the attempt, begs his father (Poseidon) to avenge him.  I’m not sure, but this sounds a little like an old Arnold Swartzennegger movie to me.