blue blood sucking

May 17, 2010

I just watched a documentary on the relationship between a shorebird and a crab-like creature – the red knot and the horseshoe crab. The birds depend on the excess horseshoe crab eggs as fuel for their multi-day migration from the southern hemisphere to the arctic where they mate.

The horseshoe crab has a very interesting history – it is a very old creature and scientists, ecologists and medical researchers are very interested in it for various reasons. In particular, its miracle blue blood is of great interest to medical researchers and led to a disturbing scene (to me) in the documentary of a row of horseshoe crabs being bled. I couldn’t help thinking of the ethics behind this practice even though the blue blood is life-saving for humans. In fact, this catch-bleed-return policy is not without trouble; there is a 10% to 15% mortality rate.

The medical research and blood extraction is not the horseshoe crab’s worst problem. It was (and still is) over-harvested for use as bait for eel and conch traps. Millions of horseshoe crabs were harvested (easily since they crawl to the beach to lay their eggs) until the effects were seen on the red knot population that depends on them for food. Currently there is a moratorium in some states and the outlook seems promising, but the timing is critical – will the horseshoe crabs rebound before red knots go extinct?

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