Ode to Limulus Polyphemus

Written By: Ann Fox

Ode to Limulus Polyphemus No, this is not about my college classics professor. It’s something more visceral, something that had been on my mind as I walked along the edge of Peconic Bay as a young person on a summer afternoon. If I hadn’t taken care it could have pierced me like an arrow. No, it’s not love, or even my brothers playing cowboys and Indians. It’s the horseshoe crab. No one walking along any beach on eastern Long Island could be indifferent to it. As children we were told not to step on its tail, which supposedly could go through a foot. As adults we’re told to revere it, its blood could be life-saving. The horseshoe crab is probably the only constant in my entire life. Well, it has been around millions of years, only a few longer than I. I never did believe that foot-piercing business, which has turned out to be a myth. In fact, as a kid I liked horseshoe crabs. We were both awkward, but they could swim on their backs, something I had trouble with. The crabs fired my childish imagination. I envisioned an army of them, clad in their dun-colored carapaces, sword-like tails thrust in the air. I imagined them crawling up the beach to attack the mighty gulls, the same gulls who were pecking at the eggs that had been laid in the sand the night before. I realized as a kid that horseshoe crabs are great equalizers. At least once during our summer on the North Shore, my parents would decide it was time to get my brothers and me out of our bathing suits, dress us up in our Sunday clothes and take us to a civilized luncheon at Herb McCarthy’s of Bowden Square in Southampton. We dreaded that day. We knew at a young age, any place with a name longer than “Joe’s Diner” was going to be stuffy. We wanted to be clamming, fishing or swimming in the bay, anything but having lunch indoors. The compromise was often a side trip to view one of the Hampton’s pristine beaches. Big deal. As we walked across the beach in socks, dress shoes dangling from limp hands, we’d see the same, plain, funny-ugly horseshoe crabs that we had on the North Shore. Ah, they have them over here, too, we thought. For a moment, the Hamptons were just like us, but with fancier restaurants. Lucky for horseshoe crabs, they are never on any menu. That’s probably how they got to be around for so long. The poor lobster, on the other hand, doesn’t look so good either, but some brave soul discovered that cooked it tastes great, especially smothered in butter. Horseshoe crab au beurre still doesn’t make it. These inedible living fossils have a mating ritual right out of contemporary female- fantasy warrior culture. It seems the lady crab dazzles the male with her smooth ten-legged moves and salty brown body, well, in reality she emits pheromones meant to attract him. When he can no longer resist, he attaches himself onto the break in her back where her two plates meet, using a pincer designed for this hook-up. She then drags him up the beach to fertilize her eggs, while she watches with her multiple eyes to makes sure he does it right. Sometimes the pair does figure eights in the sand while she lays her eggs, which would make for a rather cool MTV video. Another curious aspect of Limulus polyphemus is the fact that it can molt. In the first year alone, it changes “skin” several times. Mrs. Lp never has to have wrinkles. If she feels a wrinkle coming on, she can dump her skin. How convenient. Besides having a regular shot at smooth skin, horseshoe crabs are blue bloods. We should really refer to them as Sir and Lady Limulus polyphemus, and their eggs, as bonny princes charming. The color is due to its copper base. It’s this blue blood that’s valuable in medical testing, because it has a cell that clings to bacteria. When this cell is extracted, it’s put into batches of intravenous medications to see if there’s any contamination. When it’s seen clinging to a toxin for dear life, the batch is destroyed. The ugly creature we were told to avoid as kids, has turned into a life-saver. This is almost as bad news as snail-slime cream for rejuvenating the skin. We have to protect these relatives of the sea spider if only because we’re thankful they grew a hard shell. Imagine spiders the size of horseshoe crabs crawling out of the water. Now that’s ugly. They would never have lasted this long. The horseshoe crab has touched a whole chunk of my life. Those old-timey restaurants have come and gone, but the horseshoe crab still inhabits my favorite East End beaches. Every time you see one upturned, flip it over and put it back in the water. It might still be alive. Maybe it’s that special male Lady Limulus polyphemus has set her eye on to drag up the beach to fertilize her eggs. ___ Ode to Limulus Polyphemus