Want to see ancient animals that predate dinosaurs?
Well, it may just require a nightly stroll along the beach.
Because of a supermoon, this one dubbed a pink moon, and higher tides Monday it’s possible that people walking along the beach after sunset could experience uncommon sightings of horseshoe crabs mating or laying eggs on the Myrtle Beach area oceanfront.
While Monday’s supermoon creates a perfect environment for the sightings, it’s possible to see the animals at other times.
“They’re not uncommon to see in South Carolina. Most people have seen a dead one or a molt of one on the beach before. But it’s a little more uncommon to see these live animals,” said Erin Weeks, communications and media coordinator for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. “It can also be fairly difficult to track where they’re mating, which is why we’ve asked the public to help us identify locations where there’s large spawn aggregate.”
The S.C. DNR noted that people have already reported seeing the horseshoe crabs on state beaches, and it encourages anyone who encounters them to help the agency track them by reporting the sightings on its website. Weeks noted that taking a picture is especially helpful.
However, Weeks noted, it’s important to do so without interrupting nature.
“If there’s a group of them on the seashore it’s best to admire them from a distance and let them do their thing and not get in the way of nature,” she said. “However, if you do see one flipped over on its back and its struggling to right itself with its tail it’s certainly OK to use your shoe to sort of flip them over so they don’t get stranded.”
What are horseshoe crabs and pink moons?
Tonight there will be two special environmental events, and they correlate with each other.
The first of two supermoons of the year, a pink — and full — moon will be visible in the sky, which in turn means higher tides. The episode makes it more likely for horseshoe crabs laying their eggs to be seen by folks taking a stroll on the beach.
Both are something to see — though a bit misleading.
First, despite the name, the moon will not look pink. According to the Old Farmer’s Almanac, the designation of “pink” refers to the early springtime blooming of a wild flower native to eastern North America most commonly called the creeping phlox or moss phlox. Their seasonal association is how the name of the supermoon came to be.
Second, the horseshoe crabs are not truly “crabs” as the species’ name suggests. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, horseshoe crabs are more closely related to spiders or scorpions.
Don’t let the horseshoe crab’s looks or relatives scare you away from a nightly beach stroll, however. Their tails — officially called telsons — are not poisonous or harmful despite appearing similar to a stinger, according to the National Wildlife Federation. Instead, horseshoe crabs use their telsons to flip themselves over if they wind up on their backs.
“There’s really nothing to fear for humans from horseshoe crabs,” Weeks said. “They eat small things that are in the sediment. Their claws are not very strong and most of the time they spend their life in the water. It’s normal just during mating season that we see them coming to shore.”
The NWF states that the species can grow up to 19 inches from head to tail, with females generally being the larger of the genders.
“They’re [generally] about the size of a dinner plate,” Weeks said. “For animals that you see on the beach they’re pretty noticeable.”
They’re also ancient. Horseshoe crabs have been around for more than 300 million years, meaning they predate dinosaurs, according to the NWF.
“They’re amazingly ancient, way older than the dinosaurs,” Weeks said. “But they’re actually still fairly mysterious to us. We don’t know a whole lot about their lives when they go offshore. There’s still a lot questions that we have about their mating habits and development.”
Researchers find the relation between the animals and the lunar activity to be compelling and are trying to track down as much information as possible. Hence the reason the DNR is asking for the public’s help.
“It’s part of the research question actually. Your best chance is during the spring and fall during new and full moons,” Weeks said. “So it’s really interesting that they have this mating relationship with the lunar cycle where they come ashore most frequently during the high tides that we have during full and new moons.
“They’re coming up as far as they can along the shore or in the marsh to lay their eggs somewhere that the eggs are not going to drown basically. They’re trying to get to slightly dry land so the eggs can develop into little horseshoe cabs and then they’ll make their way to the water.”
When is the best time to see them?
According to the Old Farmer’s Almanac, the full moon will be brightest at 11:32 p.m. If you plan on checking it out, the beach could be the perfect place to see two beautiful aspects of nature at one time.
Just don’t forget your cellphone or camera.
“They are really cool, ancient animals,” Weeks said.