Molloy College’s CERCOM Field Station and an Ancient Mariner
Established in 2004 and incorporated in 2013 with the research field station for Molloy Colleges’ BS degree program in Earth and Environmental Sciences, CERCOM is the only captive breeding laboratory for Horseshoe Crabs in the United States. The only other breeding program linked to a biological academic program is in City University of Hong Kong. There are only four species of Horseshoe Crabs on Earth and their paleo history extends back 455 million years before the present, surviving five mass extinction (global) events where the majority of organisms were lost including the dinosaurs. If their fascinating paleo-survivability weren’t enough, Horseshoe Crabs are a sentinel species in conservation biology and a seminal species in their contributions to human health.
For the North American Horseshoe Crab, also known as the Atlantic horseshoe crab (scientific name Limulus polyphemus), each year females come ashore from Maine to the Yucatan to deposit between 80,000 and 100,000 eggs in the coastal wetlands, fertilized by males, and provide a cornucopia of protein for millions of migrating birds. This mix of adult, eggs, and juvenile horseshoe crabs provide for a diversity of consumers like birds (red knots), reptiles (marine turtles), finfish (winter flounder) and are all mixed in tidal cycles out to the nearshore ocean, where they all are part of the feeding frenzy of a revitalization of marine mammals such as the humpbacked whale which can be observed breaching to feed on the bumper crop of menhaden along the Atlantic Coast.
From the most practical importance of horseshoe crabs to us all, their blood contains the critical component in the production of Limulus Amebocyte Lysate (LAL), a $350 million pharmaceutical industry providing this endotoxin detector to all hospitals for detecting the possibility of gram-negative bacteria on surgical instruments or as contaminants of prescription drugs. NASA used LAL to detect contamination from microbes in the clean room for the now-completed space shuttle program and for space station development.
Each summer since 2004, CERCOM at Molloy College has monitored over 115 horseshoe crab sites from the tip of Brooklyn to the tip of Montauk on Long Island. Each of these sites originally were identified as horseshoe crab breeding sites. Each site was inventoried for horseshoe crab breeding (eggs deposited or in amplexus breeding behavior) conditions. Over this 15-plus years of monitoring, the original population of crabs observed has declined about 1% per year; however unfortunately in that same 15-year period slightly over 8% of the original breeding sights no longer exhibit horseshoe crabs or nesting activities. Several other issues impact on horseshoe crab protection. They are used for bait for conch and eel fisheries at a harvest level in New York State of 135,000 animals per season. These are lost totally to the horseshoe crabs breeding class as they are cut-up and stored for eel pots.
The horseshoe crab has become an “exotic food” resource where in Malaysia, Indonesia, and other parts of Asia during the breeding season, 10,000 adult animals are harvested, bled out for TAL production purposes [TAL and LAL have similar functions] and then all flesh removed to be sold at fisheries markets. At that rate they should be close to, if not extinct by the year 2030.
Today all the horseshoe crab species are being proposed for listing on the IUCN’s Red List as critically “vulnerable”. Much more work is required however Horseshoe Crab scientists from around the world will be meeting in China in June 2019 to gather more information and strategies to protect these amazing animals. I have also prepared a petition to present to UNESCO to declare horseshoe crabs the first world Heritage Species under its World Heritage Program. The petition can be read at https://www.thepetitionsite.com/875/761/056/petition-unesco-support-in-creating-a-global-sanctuary-for-the-horseshoe-crab/?taf_id=44151922&cid=fb_na#bbfb=855624502
If you have a passion to protect these ancient marinas come visit CERCOM (class visits can be arranged) or contact me to chat a bit. #