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Delaware National Estuarine Research Reserve

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Dancing with Horseshoe Crabs, Under the Stars

Written on: March 27th, 2018 in Education & OutreachGuest BlogResearchVolunteers

Do you recall the mention, in this blog, of the “poetry in Horseshoe Crabs”? (If not, just keyword-search “poetry” on this page.) Now is your chance to prepare for experiencing that poetry for yourself, when “dancing” with the crabs during a real-life beach “party” in support of a good cause: DNERR’s annual Horseshoe Crab Spawning Surveys.

DNERR has several upcoming Horseshoe Crab Survey Training Sessions, in advance of the actual surveys that will be conducted from late April through early July. This year’s training sessions are:
Saturday, April 7:  10 am – Noon, and 2 pm – 4 pm
Further details can be found by clicking here.

Scene from a late-night beach “party” in Delaware: “Dancing” with the Horseshoe Crabs, under a canopy of stars. (Photo: Drexel Siok)

Signing up for a training session, and then being a participant in a count, are great ways for everyday citizens to assist with the advancement of science!  Participating in a Horseshoe Crab Survey is an opportunity to attend a special type of late-night “party” on the beach, at high tide, and to have the privilege of “dancing” around the spawning Horseshoe Crabs while standing under a canopy of stars. Each group uses a portable quadrat for a “dance floor,” its boundaries delineated with a framework of PVC piping. 

This guest-blogger crossed paths recently with DNERR’s Horseshoe Crab Spawning Count Coordinator, Drexel Siok, and with DNERR’s Research Coordinator, Dr. Kari St. Laurent, for the purposes of learning more about the program. Drexel has been coordinating the counts, he said, for about five years.

“We always need new people to help out; but those who have previously completed the training must still come back every three years in order to stay current with procedures.” He continued, “Right now, we are looking for 75 people to participate in the training sessions. The registration for the sessions is done online.”

Kari, noted, “Some of the volunteers come from a distance, such as New England; so they are not necessarily all local people.” Clearly, all are driven by a love for the cause. “We also get a decent amount of school kids, of middle-school and high-school students.”

The training sessions typically cover topics such as biology and management, and they address such questions as why conduct the surveys, who uses the data, and what can — and cannot — be inferred from the data. Drexel and Kari agreed that, “Drawing accurate inferences is not that easy.”

Horseshoe Crab shell affixed with a USFWS tag, used for illustration purposes at the St. Jones Reserve. (Photo: M.L. Christmas)

“For instance,” Drexel explained, “Horseshoe Crabs reach full maturity at 8 years. That is the point at which they start to come up on the beach. So any changes to harvesting policies might not show up for a while in the count data. The spawning survey is also a measure of just the crabs we can see on the beach, and not necessarily the entire population.”

Kari added, “That is also why it is important to look at whole Delaware Bay-wide picture, not what is happening at just one point, on one particular beach, in Delaware.”

As an enticement to would-be survey-participants, she cited the fact that, “The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has a Horseshoe Crab tagging program. Watch for those tags! If you spot one on a crab, and report its number, you can receive a pin [as a prize].”

Drexel noted, “Hundreds to thousands of Horseshoe Crab tags are affixed per year. We have seen maybe 10 or 15 total in our surveys.” It pays to be observant, and therefore DNERR’s having the extra pairs of human eyes out there is important in more ways than one.

“We need a significant amount of people each night of a count,” Kari noted. “Otherwise, that is a data gap we can never get back. We really rely on our interns and volunteers for assisting with these counts.”

Can we rely on YOU to help? Please let us know!


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Text by M.L. Christmas; photos by Drexel Siok and M.L. Christmas, as noted.

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.