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The Godfather

(Photos and words by Mark Renz)

The tide was so low around the Sanibel Causeway, I probably could have walked to Punta Rasa without using the bridge. The beach sand itself was lined in orderly ripples where an hour before, the moon had pulled the salty water out to sea. Between the muddy ripples were stacked mangrove seeds, sea grass, broken shells, dead fish and the armor of dozens of horseshoe crabs. Some were partially eaten, while the exoskeletons of others may have been recently shed as the crabs matured.

The lifeless horseshoe crab I picked up was a youngster who must have been thrown up onto the shore during high tide and was unable to make it back to the safety of the estuary. It's not a true crab, but more closely related to spiders.

Holding it in my hand, I took several photos of its 6 pairs of appendages. Five pairs are for walking. Each has a small claw at the tip except for the last pair. Those legs have a leaf-like structure used for pushing and clearing away sediments as the crab burrows into the sand. In addition to the 6 pairs of legs, there are 2 small chelicera, which are like spider fangs, but modified as food-catching claws.

The telson, which looks like a poisonous stinger is actually used for steering or to right itself if the crab
gets tossed upside down by waves.

Flipping the small creature onto it's belly I took several photos of its two lateral eyes.
There are 8 more eyes elsewhere on the crab.

I was amazed at how life-like the lateral eyes were, almost as if the crab was still alive and staring back at me. I dipped it in the water for more photos and as I did...I could have sworn I felt it move. My little friend may still be alive!

I rushed back to the water and set the crab down where the depth was just a few inches. The tide was slack and the waves were fairly gentle as they pushed the shell back and forth along the bottom. At first, there was no additional movement. But then I noticed that the telson was poking down at an angle through the sand. The crab was trying to keep itself balanced!

I thought for sure it was dead but now it appeared to be slowly coming back to life. For the next 10 minutes, I watched as the little creature burrowed itself deeper and deeper into the sand. I dropped to all fours and spoke softly, saying C'mon, you can do it! Just a little more effort and you'll be safely back home. I have no idea if the crab could focus on my face but it's ancient eyes seemed locked into mine. I won't go so far as to say it was aware I had rescued it, but those eyes sure seemed grateful. Finally, the crab was completely covered. A dark spot on the bottom was the only hint of any life below the sand.

If kept moist, a horseshoe crab can live on land for many hours, which means my friend may have survived without me until the incoming tide covered it again and its telson helped to upright it. But this crab was drying out quickly in the hot morning sun. If it had remained on its back too long, the sun would dry out its gills, and the crab would weaken and die. Gulls, raccoons or other predators would then eat it.

In a world where my human lifestyle inadvertently takes the lives of animals every second of the day, it felt good to turn the tables, just once. And the notion that the critter I had just rescued has been around for 200 million years, made me feel like my contribution had depth. With a little luck, my friend could live to the ripe old age of 30 and have countless generations of kids and grandkids.

I wonder if someday I'll be a godfather?