Thursday, October 12, 2017

Critter Tales - The Dinosaur of Narragansett Bay

By Julia Akerman, Communications Intern

First of all, you may be thinking, “Wait, there were dinosaurs in Narragansett Bay? What?!” It’s true, there were, and still are. I’m talking about a small, brown marine species related to scorpions and spiders.

The Atlantic horseshoe crab has roamed the ocean floor for over 360 million years. These living fossils have survived for decades thanks to their brown, helmet-like shell that protects its vital organs from any potential predators. While its spiny tail is commonly mistaken by people as a weapon for defense, it’s actually just used to flip themselves over. If you keep your eyes open, you can encounter these critters anywhere along the coast of the Narragansett Bay. From personal experience, these prehistoric creatures are amusing to watch as they dwell in their environments.

Growing up by the Long Island Sound, another home to the Atlantic horseshoe crab, I spent most of my free time competing with my siblings to see who could find the coolest critter on the beach. I was walking along the coast one day and spotted a dark figure in the murky water. I moved closer and noticed a spikey tail that immediately scared the living daylights out of me. I managed to gather enough courage to pick it up and to my surprise it was a horseshoe crab. I became fascinated with the creature.

When I volunteered at Save The Bay Exploration Center and Aquarium this summer, I was excited to be assigned to the skate and horseshoe crab touch tank, because I finally got the opportunity to learn some more about the prehistoric creatures and relive my unforgettable childhood encounter at the beach. I learned that horseshoe crabs are scavengers, prowling the ocean floor for food such as small clams, worms and other invertebrates. They have five pairs of legs that are used for walking and pushing food closer to their mouths. I found that the horseshoe crabs’ gills were its coolest characteristic. Fun fact: another name for these gills is “book gills” because they are similar to the pages of a book and allow the horseshoe crab to breathe under water as well as on land for a short period of time as long as the gills remain moist. If you ever want to impress your family or friends by telling the difference between a male and female, just keep in mind that females are bigger than males and the first pair of appendages for a female are pincers, while the first pair for males are claws that resemble boxing gloves.

Throughout the day at the aquarium, curious guests visited the touch tank waiting their turn to hold the horseshoe crabs and learn more about them. A handful of people were nervous at first but as I shared more knowledge about the creature, their fascination grew which reminded me of myself when I was younger. Most of the horseshoe crabs brought in to the Exploration Center suffer from poor health conditions. One horseshoe crab in the tank is a lot smaller than the others, as he got older he never grew in size. If you visit the Exploration Center don’t hesitate to ask about him! Don’t miss out on this opportunity because like the other critters at the aquarium, once his health is restored, he will be released back into the Narragansett Bay.

Learn more about these living fossils at the Save The Bay Exploration Center and Aquarium in Newport, and enjoy an unforgettable, hands-on experience with our expert aquarists! We are located on Easton’s Beach at 175 Memorial Blvd and open 10 a.m. - 4 p.m. every day!

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