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The Mast-Head: The Oldest Visitors

Fri, 05/24/2019 - 15:16

As you franticly dash around this Memorial Day weekend, or hide out away from the crowd, you might take a moment to reflect on the longest-term visitors to the East End — horseshoe crabs.

About two weeks ago on the new moon high tide, I was part of a group conducting a survey for them along the Northwest Harbor side of Cedar Point. We saw one spawning pair that night; on Saturday I filled in and ran the survey alone and saw five crabs.

Awakened around midnight on Monday by the dogs, I got dressed and went down to Gardiner’s Bay, walking about 625 yards along the shore, observing seven — three pairs and one lonely male scuttling around in his desperation.

Horseshoe crabs have been around in one form or another for about 450 million years. It is safe to say that the genus of today’s crabs, Limulus, goes back at least 148 million years, which means they were primed and ready when Long Island emerged as the glacier retreated about 10,000 years ago and, later, as salt water entered the low areas along the coast, creating the harbors and bays.

Female horseshoe crabs run the show at spawning time. They seem to favor flat, relatively rock-free sand in which to burrow and lay their eggs as the clinging males hang on tight to share their sperm. All of the ones I’ve seen were doing it in a few inches of water, though often they can be found high and dry, digging nests in which to deposit their clusters of eggs, like small pearls.

People like to believe that sand is just sand, but to a horseshoe crab, it means the species’ survival. Think about that the next time you are on the beach, think about what lies beneath your feet. Or, better yet, go out at the high tide and see for yourself.