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Delaware National Estuarine Research Reserve

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  Archived Posts From: 2016


DNERR Skills are Transferable to Civilian Life

Written on: June 20th, 2016 in Education & OutreachGuest BlogNERRVolunteers

To add variety to the blog and to offer a fresh perspective from our visitors, we are inviting guest bloggers to write posts describing their visits and thoughts while at the Reserve.  The guest blog is brought to you by M.L. Christmas about her recent experience using her new found knowledge gained from attending our spring education volunteer trainings. Enjoy! (Maggie Pletta, DNERR Education Coordinator & Blog Editor)

DNERR Skills are Transferrable to Civilian Life 

An off-season stroll along the sands of Rehoboth Beach, a mere 72 hours after attending DNERR‘s education volunteer training, unexpectedly allowed this writer to flex some new knowledge.

Without the benefit of a DNERR Molt Lab handout sheet, we examined this Horseshoe Crab. For those of you “playing along at home,” note the prosoma, the opisthosoma, and the telson.

Without the benefit of a DNERR Molt Lab handout sheet, we examined this Horseshoe Crab. For those of you “playing along at home,” note the prosoma, the opisthosoma, and the telson.

While walking along the wrack line to examine the “misc. bits” left behind when high tide receded (typically seashells, shell pieces, pebbles, driftwood, seaweed, and the occasional bottle cap), we saw about a half-dozen Horseshoe Crabs, aka Limulus polyphemus. As we bent to examine one of them, I pointed out to my spouse the crab’s median eyes, and he was stunned. One could look at Horseshoe Crabs for years and never notice those secret “spy eyes”…until they are pointed out to you, just as they were to me at a recent education training session. Once you are aware of those median eyes, one of five types of eyes with which Horseshoe Crabs are outfitted, they will be almost all you can think about.

We could not help but notice this crab had a number of hitchhikers” on its opisthosoma. That’s the hinged, triangular plate connecting the main body (prosoma) with the tail (telson). A terrific fold-out poster from the “Green Eggs & Sand” curriculum, offered at DNERR, illustrates 10 of the 20+ creatures or plants known to use Horseshoe Crabs as a primitive sort of Uber ride, but with the passengers not readily disembarking: such things as jingle shells, sea strawberries (a type of coral), tube worms, and starfish.

Portrait of a lovely day at Rehoboth Beach: a not-so-still-life of gulls, shorebirds, sand, and breakers.

Portrait of a lovely day at Rehoboth Beach: a not-so-still-life of gulls, shorebirds, sand, and breakers.

Also pointed out to my hubby was the ratio of shell-size to crab-age, which of course makes sense; at which he asked me the logical question (pop quiz!): How long do Horseshoe Crabs live? Me (emboldened by DNERR training): About 25 years, but they don’t go through the series of molts the entire time. There is a “terminal molt.” He: What’s that? Me: That’s their final molt, occurring around age 12.

It all seems so straightforward, but yet I felt empowered. After all, how often does one get to use “terminal molt” in a sentence and really mean it?

Then I stepped into the Great Unknown, with a mention of the “Mystery of What Happens the Rest of the Year.” He: Huh? Me: It’s a mystery, to scientists, where Horseshoe Crabs go, and what they do, the rest of the year, once the spawning cycle’s finished in May and June. How do they fill their days, out in the deep, apart from their thankless work as an unintentional taxi service?

My first-ever discovery of a seahorse washed up along the wrack line.

My first-ever discovery of a seahorse washed up along the wrack line.

Then, out of the deep, another mystery presented itself as we walked along: a seahorse washed up on the beach! In all my time spent strolling on Delaware beaches, I had never seen a seahorse “in person” before. Seahorses are the stuff of National Geographic videos and major metropolitan aquaria. In other words, out there in the bright lights of big-time, not desiccated and left at the high-tide mark in little ole Delaware. My seahorse illusions were broken, but unbeknownst to me, they would soon be replaced with a piece of useful knowledge.

The subsequent Saturday, I spotted Maggie and an assistant seated at an outside display-table in front of the Dover Public Library. It was a Horseshoe Crab exhibit as part of a community science-fair. The opaque, white bucket emblazoned “DNERR” in bold marker-pen was actually what first gave them away. I made the obligatory joke about its being filled with ice and that that’s where they were keeping their energy drinks and bag lunches; but I knew, from DNERR education training, the bucket’s real purpose. Sometimes, the Horseshoe Crab is a taxi, and other times the crab gets a taxi. That’s what had happened that day.

The taxi passenger, a young Horseshoe Crab, now sat in a low, plastic bin of sand and water, right there on the table, for casual inspection. While he/she quietly nudged around in the shallows, I had the pleasure of confirming to Maggie that DNERR education training sessions do sink in, and not only that, I was able to use some of that knowledge only two days earlier, out in the wilds of Rehoboth.

Then I told her about the seahorse sighting. Maggie, ever ready with a handy fact, revealed that the occasional seahorse has been snagged in the nets when DNERR trawls the mouth of the St. Jones, where it opens into the Delaware Bay. The reality of that is about as shocking to me as the existence of median eyes. And don’t get me started on Horseshoe Crabs’ “book gills.” (“Book gills”! Imagine!)

So, in learning my lessons at education training, I unwittingly learned another lesson: Keep all of your sets of eyes — even your stealth-eyes — open when away from DNERR. You never know what you may see and learn when trying to practice speaking Limulus polyphemus.

Text and photos by M.L. Christmas

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M.L. Christmas, MSM, is a freelance writer/editor living in the Dover area. She is a longtime member of Delaware Press Association and the National Federation of Press Women. Her approach to nature writing, she says, is part Henry David Thoreau and part Dave Barry.

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