‘Living fossils’: How horseshoe crabs help keep ecosystem, medical industry afloat

Hundreds of horseshoe crabs gather to nest on Florida’s coast. But did you know the species’ blue blood plays a lifesaving role in the medicine you take?

“When the tides are right and the winds are right and love is in the air, we can see as many as 300 to 500 crabs coming up and nesting on the shoreline,” said Jessy Wayles, with the Indian River Lagoon National Estuary Program in New Smyrna Beach.


They can show up anywhere from Maine to Mexico.

“It can sometimes be a struggle to find them,” Wayles said.

Wayles monitors crab populations in the Intracoastal waters where the lunar cycle’s influence on high tide isn’t nearly as strong as the quickly changing winds, making it difficult to predict where the crabs will surface.

Read: 9 things to know about horseshoe crabs

“They have eight eyes. They also have eight sets of legs. They’re considered to be living fossils. They’ve been around for 450 million years,” she said.

And in that time, the living fossils have evolved into something truly remarkable for humanity. Their blood is able to help save lives.

Experts said they have an enzyme in their blood cells that is collected and processed to make what’s called ‘”limulus amoebocyte lysate.”

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The medical industry uses the compound in the creature’s blue blood to screen injectable medicines and implants, ensuring they’re sterile before human use.

In South Carolina, a lab collects blood from crabs they catch and release the same day.

“It’s very important to us to keep these guys in the ecosystem because they are considered a keystone species, and if we were to lose this species, our system would collapse as well,” Wayles said.

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