By: Matt Ferroni, Senior Biologist
Hello my name is Matt Ferroni, and I’m a Senior Biologist here at Adventure Aquarium. While my main responsibilities include overseeing our 550,000 gallon Shark Realm exhibit and several holding systems, I am also in charge of our Horseshoe Crab Head-Start Program, which began in July of 2011.
Over the past few decades Horseshoe Crabs have been harvested for use as eel and conch bait, as well as by the biomedical industry for the production of LAL (limulus amoebocyte lysate), which is produced from Horseshoe Crab blood. LAL is used to screen surgical implants, intravenous drugs, and vaccines for bacteria that could otherwise make you very ill. For that reason alone, Horseshoe Crabs are incredibly important to humans.
Horseshoe Crabs also serve a very important ecological role. Every spring and summer, females crawl onto the beaches of the Delaware Bay and lay eggs, sometimes up to 80,000 in one season. It is said that of these 80,000 eggs only ten might reach adulthood. So what happens to the rest of them? Unfortunately the majority of the eggs and hatchlings are eaten by fish, crabs, and even shorebirds. In fact, these eggs are the only food source for the threatened Red Knot, a migratory shorebird that stops in the Delaware Bay during its 10,000 mile flight from southern Chile to the Canadian Arctic.
Without these eggs as a food source, the Red Knot cannot finish the flight to its breeding grounds and many have perished as a result. Horseshoe Crabs are also an important prey item for sea turtles, and their numbers could directly influence the health of turtle populations.
For the reasons mentioned above, we felt it was important to get involved in helping to increase the Horseshoe Crab population. In July of 2011 I traveled to Kimbles Beach in Cape May Court House, NJ with Dr. Dan Hernandez of The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. Dan helped me locate and excavate several clutches of eggs that were buried below the surface.
The eggs were brought back to Adventure Aquarium where they hatched and have been growing ever since. This process has been repeated every year and each year we are even more successful. Come this summer Adventure Aquarium will be releasing hundreds of crabs from both the 2011 and 2012 collections. These Horseshoe Crabs grow faster than those in the wild due to the conditions we raise them in as well as the food that they receive.
Each morning I come into work eager to see how many new molts there are, I then separate the crabs according to size, and offer them different food items based on those sizes.
It has been truly incredible watching these animals grow from just a few millimeters to the size of my hand in what is actually a very short period of time. I am excited to release these animals back into their environment and look forward to collecting some more eggs this summer.