SHU Scientists Awarded Federal Grant to Study Horseshoe Crabs

News Story:

Three Sacred Heart University scientists were awarded a federal grant to examine the link between horseshoe crabs and other species as part of an initiative to determine the impact that the arthropods have on the balance of the Long Island Sound’s ecosystem.

Associate Professor and Department of Biology Chair Jennifer Mattei, and Assistant Professors Mark Beekey and Barbara Pierce will study the dependence of migratory shorebirds, fish and other species on horseshoe crab eggs. They were awarded a $30,000 Connecticut Sea Grant through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Horseshoe crabs bury their eggs about five inches below the surface of the sand. However, so many eggs are laid that many float free and are eaten by birds, fish and other species. About 10 bird species migrating from South America to the Arctic stop along the Eastern Seaboard and feed on the eggs each year. Because this activity primarily takes place in Delaware Bay, scientists are unsure if the same phenomenon exists in the Long Island Sound. The last published study of horseshoe crabs here was done in 1957.

Horseshoe crabs are also very important to fishermen because they are the preferred bait for catching American eel and whelk in the Long Island Sound. Both are in high-demand in Asian countries.

The research could affect public policy decisions regarding the fisheries industry and the number of animals that fishermen are allowed to take and use as bait in their attempts to catch eel and whelk.

The study will also give several students hands-on research experience. Undergraduates will be posted at feeding sites at Milford Point Beach and Sandy Point in New Haven. Both beaches have been closed to harvesting and provide ideal study environments.

Students will record observations of the birds as part of the University’s Undergraduate Research Initiative, which pairs interested undergraduates with professors in order to gain research experience.

“They’ll get to see science in action,” Mattei said. “They’re exposed to how you go about collecting data and how you set up experiments with a control group.” The students will have an opportunity to present their work at the Sigma Xi Scientific Research Society Chapter Conference, which takes place at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., this year.

“We’re having more students apply to graduate school and get in to master’s and Ph.D. programs because we have this undergraduate research initiative,” Mattei said.