A horseshoe crab: it is only when you see the shell wet from the water, close up, that you know they are real | Helen Sullivan [wafact]

Every day in bright clinical rooms in countries all over the world, horseshoe crabs are strapped into specially designed harnesses and drained of a third of their blood by people in lab coats. Then they are put back into rivers and oceans to swim-scuttle out their days.

Horseshoe crabs are prehistoric and they look it: a fossilised Roomba most of the way through eating a stingray. The horseshoe crab looks mainly like it should not be alive right now.

Rear view of Horseshoe crab (Limulus polyphemus) with trail in sand, Delaware Bay, Delaware, USA, May.
Horseshoe crab (Limulus polyphemus) with its trail in sand, Delaware Bay, US. Photograph: Nature Picture Library/Alamy

They are about 20 cm across and twice that length including their tails, and belong in museum dioramas, not the sea – or the bright clinical rooms. They belong on dusty papier-mache painted to look like rocks or in solid resin water, not strapped into perfect rows in bright rooms full of steel.

It is only when you see the shell wet from the water, close up, that you know they are real and alive; their shells are beautiful and finely cracked, a patch of dark olive on an old painting.

The blood. It is milky blue. And like no other substance it quickly, accurately detects toxins that can contaminate medicine. This is how we got here: half a million horseshoe crabs are caught and bled in laboratories every year. Below them in the harnesses are large glass jugs. Even the jugs seem strange, homely almost.

How do the crabs get there? They are not living in tanks. No, men in peak caps and cargo shorts, in ordinary human clothes, go to the sea at night and yank the crabs from the water by their tails, chucking them into a pile on a boat.

Horseshoe crabs are bled at the Charles River Laboratory.
‘Horseshoe crabs are drained of a third of their blood, and then put back into rivers and oceans to swim-scuttle out their days.’ Photograph: Timothy Fadek/Corbis/Getty Images

Then they are chucked into trucks and driven to the bleeding facilities. To get the blood, a needle is injected through a hinge in the crab’s shell and into a membrane running along its heart (its heart is shaped like a caterpillar).

“Anyone who gets a flu or Covid shot, childhood immunisation, heart stent or hip replacement – and that’s almost everyone – is protected by [a test made using] the blue blood of the horseshoe crab,” according to Deborah Cramer, who has written a book about horseshoe crabs and the birds that eat their tiny green eggs.

The eggs: they are laid in a spawning event of millions of crabs over thousands of kilometres, females climbing the beach pushed by waves and pulling the males attached to their backs. They have been doing this at full moon and high tide since before dinosaurs. By the light of the moon, they look like hundreds of army helmets abandoned on the sand – until a wave flips one over, and you see legs flailing in the moonlight.

Magnified, wedged between biscuit-coloured grains of sand, the eggs become clear eggshells holding small green creatures, which with their gently convex shells seem to delight in somersaulting against a concave wall. They have no idea that of all of the hundreds of millions of years they could have been born, with all of the things happening around them, they were born in this age; that they will meet vampires and live (most of them do, anyway) to tell the tale.

  • Helen Sullivan is a Guardian journalist. Her first book, a memoir called Freak of Nature, will be published in 2024

  • Have an animal, insect or other subject you feel is worthy of appearing in this very serious column? Email helen.sullivan@theguardian.com

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