Have you even been on a walk on our Hilton Head beaches and seen something that could easily be described as a living fossil? Horseshoe crabs are a fairly common sight on Hilton Head Island beaches. They are very strange looking creatures and some might think they don't look very much like crabs. Well, they're actually not crabs at all! They are in a family more closely related to spiders and scorpions than true crabs. If you lift their shell, you will see they have 8 legs - just like spiders! As weird as they are, they are playing an important role in human health care so it is important to protect them. There is a local lab in South Carolina that collects the crabs at night, and extracts their blood. You might ask yourself why we would want the bright blue blood of a "crab-spider". "When faced with toxins produced by bacteria, amebocyte cells in the blood -- colored blue by their copper-based molecules -- identify and congeal around the invading matter, trapping the threat inside a gel-like seal that prevents it from spreading." - CNN. So this defense mechanism is helpful to the horseshoe crabs when they are exposed to the many infectious bacteria that can be found in the shallow water they live in, however how can this help people? This research is helping to develop an anti-viral and even anti-cancer treatment using their blood to isolate dangerous cells and keep them from spreading.
This all sounds great, however over 600,000 horseshoe crabs are collected every year and about 30% of their blood is extracted. Most horseshoe crabs are tough enough to handle this, however there is a percentage that doesn't cope well with the stress and the rapid loss of blood. Even a small percentage of 600,000 is a large number of horseshoe crabs that we are ultimately killing to advance medically.
They may be strange creatures, but they are making a lot of sacrifices to help us out. When you see them on the beach, please leave them be. June is their mating season and they typically litter our beaches during a busy tourist month. Please try to coexist peacefully with them and do not harass them. Their ancestors date back to 450 million years ago. They have been here much longer than us and deserve respect. Many people think they are dangerous because of their long, spiky, sharp tail. This couldn't be further from the truth. They are harmless creatures.
Horseshoe crabs might be strange looking, but we here at Island Life HH have found a way to make them beautiful! Click here to see our Hand painted horseshoe crab art! (All horseshoe crab shells collected on Hilton Head Island safely - no animals were harmed during the collection or creation process.)