Enthusiasm is high for citizen science projects in our area, as we’ve seen with the success of our Sarasota County Horseshoe Crab Watch Program. Participants eagerly have waded in (sometimes literally) on efforts to gather more information about these “living fossils,” and help to protect and preserve them all around Florida.
The progress has been amazing to watch. Equally amazing is how often we get requests to expand the program, with more and more of you wanting to join. Read on to find out a little more about this.
The horseshoe crab watch was created, in part, because of a lack of knowledge about the population status of this marine animal (Limulus polyphemus) in Florida. The program takes advantage of the beach-nesting behavior of horseshoe crabs to collect valuable information.
In Sarasota County, we have two horseshoe crab sites that volunteers monitor. Our volunteers walk known sections of these sites at predetermined times and count the number of horseshoe crabs mating groups they see. A small subset of crabs is collected, measured, tagged with a small numbered disc, and released back into the wild. Reports of these tagged horseshoe crabs help track their movements, reappearances on beaches and determine population trends. This information helps the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) better manage these important marine animals.
Horseshoe crabs have existed virtually unchanged for more than 400 million years, a testament to finding a niche in the ecosystem and filling it perfectly. Across time, they have become key elements in our marine ecosystem. Many marine species, like the threatened migratory red knot bird, eat horseshoe crabs or their eggs. Humans capitalize on this by using horseshoe crabs as bait for conch and eel fisheries.
Horseshoe crabs cluster in shallow water and along the shore. [CREDIT: UF/IFAS Extension Sarasota County}]
The blood of horseshoe crabs even is vital for biomedical testing. The federal Food and Drug Administration requires that all medicines for injection, devices used for injection, and internal prosthetics undergo testing with an extract only found in horseshoe crab blood.
Citizen scientists provide a great service by helping FWC keep track of population numbers, which helps with the management of the species to ensure that the ecological functions of horseshoe crabs continue.
If you would like to join our Sarasota County program, please email me so I can let you know when our next horseshoe crab volunteer training will occur.
And if you are not in Sarasota County or nearby but still would like to participate, no worries. Other Florida counties also offer this program, and you can get more information by emailing Berlynna Heres, with FWC’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute.