Monday, August 20, 2012
The time has come to end this blog. It's been a great run and I have thoroughly enjoyed sharing some of my discoveries about horseshoe crabs with all of you. I appreciate your comments and your enthusiasm for this enigmatic creature - one that continues to amaze and continues to survive.
But, other literary ventures beckon and other discoveries await. Thus, this will be the final posting. Thank you so much for your time and your encouragement. I hope you will obtain a copy of the book on which this blog has been based - "Horseshoe Crab: Biography of a Survivor" (Ruka Press, 2012) - and that you will continue to share its story with friends and colleagues.
Wednesday, July 25, 2012
Unquestionably, the facilities I toured were clean and pristine, the workers were efficient and dedicated, and the hum of activity was constant and purposeful. The facility was part of a larger enterprise that was working to produce a product that, perhaps one day, might help me – or help you - survive a medical procedure. But it wasn’t the facility that impressed me, it was the tiny creatures aligned in long rows with people sticking sharp needles into their backsides that impressed me most.
The horseshoe crabs didn’t ask to be here. Once upon a time they were peacefully crawling over the sand and silt scattered across the bottom of the
There they were sorted into categories and placed into other bins. They were wheeled into a long chilly room where a pair of human hands would lift them up, bend their bodies in two, and wedge them between two wooden boards. Their backsides would be swabbed with disinfectant and then, joy upon joy, a very sharp object would piece their body and puncture their heart. They would sit there (sit there?) for five to ten minutes while some of their body’s vital fluids drained into a large glass bottle placed beneath them.
Then they were pulled from the racks, re-deposited back into some portable tubs and unceremoniously trucked into a back room. They waited there and then were loaded into trucks, transported back to the ocean, and gently placed back into the arms of the
It was easy for me to determine all the benefits you and me and a couple of billion humans have obtained from horseshoe crabs. But there was still a persistent question tickling the back of my brain – a question I couldn’t quite answer as I swung out of
It's been quite a ride! I have thoroughly enjoyed sharing my views, discoveries and adventures with horseshoe crabs over the course of the past year-and-a-half. But, all good things must eventually come to an end. And, so it is with this blog. Other writing ventures beckon and other literary assignments call...and I must heed their demands. Consequently, this will be my last blog posting. I sincerely hope you have enjoyed the ride and that you will ealso njoy the fruits of this journey in my book - Horseshoe Crab: Biography of a Survivor (Ruka Press, 2012). The book has garnered many rave reviews from several well-respected people and I'm delighted with its message. I hope you'll consider getting a copy.
Thanks for your support and your enthusiasm for, arguably, one of the most fascinating creatures on this planet!
Wednesday, July 11, 2012
We pass back into the bleeding area, and as we observe the blood collection process again, this time from the back side of the bleeding room, I ask Denise about the ratio of male to female crabs during the bleeding process. “The number of males and females is reported to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, with the end product being roughly a 50/50 ratio of males to females for the entire season.” While each individual bleeding session may have more males or more females, the 50/50 ratio is the goal by the end of the season. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources monitors the entire process: the number of trawls, how long each trawl can be, how many crabs are caught by each fisherman, how many males to females he brings in, and how many are rejected for size. Every aspect of the operation is controlled and monitored.
Tuesday, June 19, 2012
After some “ground rules” about what I could and could not do while inside the facility, Denise led me on tour. After grabbing my (non-sterile) clipboard and my (equally non-sterile) pen and we begin our journey. I soon discovered that carrying on a conversation through the gauze of our face masks and the constant hum of machines (that I am not permitted to describe) would be a constant challenge (Hmmm, I thought to myself. How would Bond have handled this? What about Damon?)
As we enter the bleeding room I can see a long row of horseshoe crabs – each wedged between two white planks at about eye level (human eye level, that is, not horseshoe crab eye level). There are approximately 20-30 crabs being bled into 500ml liter sterile bottles. Each of the crabs is sprayed with a disinfectant prior to being bled. After spraying, a worker comes by and uses a cotton swab to further disinfect each crab’s arthrodial membrane. At all times sterile conditions are maintained throughout the bleeding process…more to protect the product rather than the crab, I am told.
Each crab is then stuck with a very sharp needle attached plastic syringe-type devise. The needle pierces the hinge between its prosoma and opisithosoma and is inserted into the crab about 1/4 inch. Shortly after the needle punctures the cardiac sinus of each crab the (blue) blood begins draining into a bottle placed beneath each crab. Workers must be careful to pierce the arthrodial membrane and then the cardiac sinus. If the gut is punctured, gut material would contaminate the entire bottle with bacteria. However, these are pros and their practiced hands, after hundreds or thousands of heart punctures seldom make a mistake.
The blood, which is a light-blue, almost turquoise in color, descends into each of the bottles - some are barely dripping while others are flowing at a fairly constant rate. Once it gets down to a slow drip the needle is pulled out. A few of the crabs decide not to cooperate – they aren’t bleeding at all.« After each crab has been bled I watch as one of the workers works her way down the line, and using a portable electric drill (good old Black and Decker), she punctures the left hand flange on the rear of each crab’s prosoma. Since it is 2011 the hole is drilled into the left side of the carapace; next year (2012) is an even year, so a hole will be drilled into the right side of each bled crab. During each harvesting season, fishermen look for these holes; if a hole is present they can tell if a crab has been bled in the current year or in a previous year.
Each of the 500 ml bottles used to collect the turquoise-blue blood also has an anticoagulant to prevent any clotting from taking place. Immediately after a cadre of crabs has been bled, the syringes are removed. The crabs are then returned to oversized bins and wheeled out of the operating room (excuse me, bleeding room). As the recently bled crabs are being wheeled away in readiness for the next batch, a few workers are cleaning the stainless steel tables with disinfectant. A new set of crabs is rolled in, wedged between the boards, and the operation repeats itself.
I watch closely as Sheila (I’m allowed to use what is apparently her real name, although (since I’m up on current spy protocol) that may be a sneaky diversionary tactic to confuse me so that I don’t recognize that she is, in reality, a company informant [named Brunhilda] watching my every move) goes through the entire process. Sheila has been bleeding crabs here for 13 years and has a good eye for the process. She is business-like, methodical, and knows her craft well. I watch her go through the entire procedure with a sense of efficiency as well as a respect for the crabs she is handling. To her, these are not inanimate objects, but rather life-saving organisms temporarily entrusted to her care. She treats them efficiency and she treats them well.
After departing the bleeding room we take off our coats, masks, booties, and other protective gear and re-dress in similar sartorial splendor prior to entering another sterile room. We have now entered the Processing Room. The bottles from the bleeding room have been passed through an air lock and into this section of the facility where they are put into a centrifuge. The centrifuge is designed to separate the cells from the serum or hemolymph. After centrifuging, the cells will be left on the bottom of each container and the hemolymph, or blue solution, will be poured off. One of the workers will then re-suspend the cells and wash them in liquid media. After the washing process they’ll go into the centrifuge again. Once they are centrifuged, the cells can then be lysed (the breaking down of a cell).
Sunday, June 3, 2012
However, before I made the trip I was advised that I could not take any photographs, nor could I tape record any of the conversation I was to have with the plant manager. I could take handwritten notes, but I could not take away any visual or verbal information. This was top secret stuff – proprietary information – and since James Bond wasn’t around I now imagined myself in a Matt Damon movie. I was about to enter a secret facility, with very secret information, and clusters of very secret people who talked in low whispers, wore starched while lab coats, carried clipboards and walkie-talkies, and ate cellophane-wrapped sandwiches in sterile lunchrooms.
On top of all the secrecy I was required to wear the always fashionable blue hair net, starched white lab coat, baby blue “booties” over my shoes, sterile face mask, and special goggles over my glasses. I wanted to try my best Matt Damon impersonation, but the thick pad of gauze over my mouth muffled my usually witty repartee making me sound more like Big Bird or Cookie Monster on
Tuesday, May 22, 2012
Gauvrey’s passion ramped up several degrees. The enthusiasm in his voice and the intensity of his words was palpable. “The horseshoe crab gives its blood to the biomedical industry, it gives it eyes to research, it gives its eggs to the shore birds, and it gives its body to the fishermen. It gives all these things and as a result of all these gifts that it gives, it’s just barely breaking that line with a certain majority of people who choose to pay attention, barely!”
Saturday, April 28, 2012
“From a personal point of view,” Brockmann emphasized, “the answer to your question would be that they’re just such fascinating creatures and so unusual. I always think to myself, when I’ve been in the field for a little while, it’s like studying a Martian. They don’t share a common ancestor with any other group for four-hundred and fifty million years.” For Brockmann there’s nothing else like them on this planet. “And yet, all of us studying their biochemistry, or their blood, or their visual system are finding fundamental principles that apply to all kinds of species on the planet.” We all use lateral inhibition in helping us identify visual patterns – a critical principle first discovered in studies of horseshoe crabs. “So, although [crabs] are Martians in the sense that they don’t share a common ancestor with anybody else, all life has these basic [and surprising] similarities. My personal view is that they’re so absolutely fascinating and they get even more intriguing as you learn more about them.”
“I think,” Brockmann stated, “that it’s very important to emphasize that this funny looking creature that you don’t think is worth much; this stupid, "ugly" animal is actually important to the ecosystem, to science and to me.” As a scientist, Brockmann is concerned about the unbelievable ignorance surrounding these animals. She worries that there are so many individuals who hold the belief that these animals are of no consequence. “This animal is of consequence and so are a lot of other animals.”
My conversations with Carl Shuster yielded similar information and similar passion. Shuster told me that there’s a lot about this animal that interfaces with our activities, particularly human health. He made the point that the crab’s heart has been well studied and there is a positive relationship between activation of the heart by nerve impulses and intramuscular activity. Some of these processes also come into play in human anatomy as well. “Much of what we know in the visual sciences has been aided by what has been studied in the horseshoe crab optical system.”
With fire in his eyes he said, “If you want to know something about the world around you and what influences it and you want to pick an animal that’s had greater influence than any other on human health and human life, the horseshoe crab maybe is it.”
Sunday, April 15, 2012
Horseshoe Crab: Biography of a Survivor can now be obtained through a special pre-publication offer from the publisher. Log on to the Ruka Press web site (www.rukapress.com). Click on the announcement for "Horseshoe Crab." When the order form appears, enter the code "PRE" into the coupon box and you will receive an automatic 25% discount off the regular price. This special offer is good only until the scheduled release date for the book (May 22, 2012).
Please feel free to share this information with friends and colleagues.
Monday, April 2, 2012
I suspect that part of the reason most people have a somewhat diffident attitude towards Limulus is because of their looks. “Cute” is probably not the first word you think of in any face-to-face encounter with a horseshoe crab. “Cute” is a word normally assigned to soft, furry critters like koala bears and those ever-present kittens on non-stop web cams. Young kids and old ladies especially love cuddly creatures ‘cause you can turn them into stuffed animals or post pictures of them around the foyer of your house. But, a picture of a horseshoe crab – no way, José!
Dr. Jane Brockmann tells the story of the time when she was on a beach in
Imagine walking down the street in your town and some beefy motorcyclist comes up to you and slugs you right in the face with a good right hook. After sufficiently recovering, you ask the heavily-tattooed individual, “Why the hell did you do that?” And the heavily-tattooed individual replies, “’cuz you’re ugly.” Really messes up your day!
Throughout the research for the book Horseshoe Crab: Biography of a Survivor there was one question I would pose to almost every scientist, marine biologist, environmentalist, horseshoe crab enthusiast, or researcher. That was, “Why should the average person care about horseshoe crabs?” or “Why should someone in the Midwest or on the West Coast care about horseshoe crabs when they are exclusively an East Coast species (specifically Limulus polyphemus)?” I was particularly curious as to why folks in
In almost every instance, the answer came back the same – “Because they are so much a part of our lives!”
Tuesday, March 27, 2012
Surveys in the
As you will discover in Chapter 8, the birds are dependent on the crabs for a significant portion of their ability to survive. The crabs are partially dependent on the actions and practices of humans for their overall survival. It would be safe to say that the connections and interrelationships are tenuous, fragile, and evolutionary. The results of any mandates or legislation, on the other hand, may be permanent and irrevocable. Simply stated, there are many stakeholders up and down the line. It is conceivable that Mother Nature will be the final arbiter – irrespective of what we want.
Suffice it to say, horseshoe crabs have been around for a very long time and they have proven themselves to be a most useful species – for humans as well as other organisms. It remains to be seen whether the crabs will be able to continue their multi-faceted role in the decades and centuries to come.
Monday, March 19, 2012
When watermen fish for eel or conch, they would typically take a whole male or half-female horseshoe crab and place it on a spike inside a fishing pot. There, the smell of the crab attracted the targeted catch. Once trapped, however, the conch (along with many other creatures) is free to eat the bait, reducing the bait’s effectiveness (Once the bait was consumed by the trapped animals, so was its effectiveness at catching more animals.). One fisherman, Frank Eicherly, began experimenting with a plastic mesh bag that held part of the horseshoe crab to the bottom of a conch pot with bungee cords. What Eicherly discovered (another endorsement for the saying “The best ideas are often the simplest ideas.”) is that the bag didn’t diminish the lure of the bait, but it did significantly prevent its consumption. Eicherly discovered additional benefits of this procedure including the fact that he used less bait, changed it less often, and was able to reduce his need for horseshoe crabs by as much as 76% (Imagine reporting to your boss that you were able to increase the company’s profits by 76%. He (or she) might be doing an Irish jig on your desk [admittedly, not a pretty sight!]).
This “invention” was nothing short of phenomenal. It was quickly picked up by several groups including the Environmental Research and Development Group (ERDG – the primary horseshoe crab preservation group in the world), the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences Sea Grant program, and
Monday, March 12, 2012
Despite a plethora of regulations, the debate continued and intensified. Birders and environmental groups cited growing concerns over declines in shorebird populations and pressured for a moratorium on harvesting; fishermen felt scientific data on horseshoe crab populations was uncertain, that their harvests had already been cut back, and they lobbied for no further restrictions. Obviously, the issues were many and were all inexorably intertwined. There seemed to be no quick and easy solution.
Sunday, March 4, 2012
For many years the eel and whelk markets were relatively small and largely unregulated. However, they were closely tied to horseshoe crabs; simply because the crabs were the bait of choice for capturing these seafood delicacies. Then, in the latter part of the 20th century the markets – particularly in the Orient – expanded exponentially. More people wanted more eel and more people wanted more conch. This could only mean one thing - a rapidly expanding need for horseshoe crabs as eel and whelk bait.
Not surprisingly, the demand for horseshoe crabs exploded as well. Large boats trawled and dredged the bottom of
Just as the horseshoe crab population was beginning to rebound due to the demise of the fertilizer industry, the “crabs-for-bait” pressure was added to the mix. Since horseshoe crabs take approximately 9-11 years to reach sexual maturity, the mass harvesting of egg-laden females had the potential to have a significant and potentially negative effect on populations…perhaps for many years. Added into this formula was an epidemic of studies indicating that migrating shorebirds, which are dependent upon horseshoe crabs eggs for their ultimate survival, might also be negatively impacted.
Pressures increased. There was an environmental pressure on horseshoe crabs from the watermen who need the crabs for bait, a market pressure from the eel and conch industry for adequate supplies of this food source – a food source that was caught primarily with the use of crabs as bait, and a conservation pressure from environmentalists and birders who were afraid that substantial declines in crab populations would translate into substantial declines in shorebird populations. An additional pressure from the biomedical industry on their need for horseshoe crabs for LAL bleeding made for an interesting and most problematic environmental and economic conundrum. The horseshoe crab “industry” needed to be managed to ensure the survival of the species as well as the survival of all the constituents dependent upon this prehistoric creature. By the mid 1990s there was a siren call for legislation.
Thursday, February 23, 2012
"An accurate and very readable introduction to Limulus polyphemus. I highly recommend it." - Dr. Carl N. Shuster, Jr., The College of William and Mary.
"A reminder that a skillful storyteller can find a good tale anywhere." - Peter Laufer, author of The Dangerous World of Butterflies.
"An accessible, playful introduction to an ancient animals that continues to amaze us." - Michael Oates, video documentarian.
"An entertaining guide to a creature that's 445 million years old and still having sex on the beach." - Richard Conniff, author of The Species Seekers and Spineless Wonders.
Sunday, February 12, 2012
Sunday, January 29, 2012
As a result of this new legislation, many fishermen and watermen found themselves in a bit of an economic quandary. They desperately needed other seafood markets in order to sustain themselves and their families. Amazingly, the markets were already in place – albeit on a very small level – the American eel and whelk (or conch) industries.
Saturday, January 21, 2012
Second, you’ll also note that there was a substantial decline in the number of horseshoe crabs harvested from the waters of the
It also seems safe to assume that there was a significant decline in the need for horseshoe crabs as fertilizer. However, there wasn’t necessarily a significant decline in the need for horseshoe crabs.
Wednesday, January 11, 2012
Wednesday, January 4, 2012
The chart below represents some very rough estimates on the number of adult horseshoe crabs harvested in
# of Horseshoe Crabs Harvested