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Horseshoe Crabs Begin 2024 Migration onto Maryland Beaches

Photo of horseshoe crab in the surf on a beach

Maryland Department of Natural Resources photo.

Something ancient is making its way onto the shores of Maryland – the annual spawning migration of horseshoe crabs, Limulus polyphemus.

The migration usually takes place from May through July, and its peak culminates with high tides on or around each full and new moon in May and June. Dating back an estimated 350 million years, this yearly event along the Atlantic coast is believed to be the world’s oldest and largest wildlife migration. 

On average, one spawning female horseshoe crab will deposit 20,000 eggs into the sand. In addition to perpetuating the ancient species, these eggs are a natural part of the diet for migratory shorebirds preparing to return to their summer nesting grounds in northern Canada. Horseshoe crab larvae are also an important food source for juvenile Atlantic loggerhead turtles, as well as striped bass, American eel, and flounder. 

The horseshoe crab also provides a valuable commodity for humans, as its copper-based blood is critical for biomedical research. The animals are collected by specially permitted fishing operations, have blood drawn in a biomedical facility, and then are released back into the water. 

Despite their menacing armor and tail, horseshoe crabs are gentle creatures that do not bite or sting. The tail is not a weapon, it’s used to plow the crab through the sand and muck, act as a rudder in the water, and to right the crab when it accidentally tips over. Humans can also help horseshoe crabs by freeing any that are trapped in rock jetties or unable to right themselves. This can be done by gently flipping or moving the animal, using both hands, but never picking it up by its tail. 

Biologists from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the Maryland Coastal Bays Program monitor the returning horseshoe crab population for ecological and scientific research purposes. The department encourages the public to report any spawning activity and sightings of horseshoe crabs to DNR’s Horseshoe Crab Volunteer Angler Survey

Best opportunities to view horseshoe crabs are evenings around the new and full moons in June. Ideal locations for observation include Sunset Park near the Ocean City Inlet, and they can also be seen around the Chesapeake Bay at spawning sites that are listed on the Horseshoe Crab Volunteer Angler Survey webpage.