A sense of calm pervades the salt marsh and the beach. Shorter days and cooler temperatures foretell the arrival of winter. Whether you call Hilton Head Island home – or some far away place – everywhere surrenders to seasonal changes.
The dolphin population has thinned – migrants have moved out and are likely cruising the Carolina coastline. Local watermen have stowed crabbing and shrimping gear and now are busy harvesting oysters. Eagles have re-established pair bonds and nests, laid eggs and patiently await the hatching of their chicks.
I love to be on the water throughout the winter. The water seems so clear, nature seems so relaxed. Life in the salt marsh is not nearly as exuberant as in summer, and I know that this environment is preparing for the spring. Like a field gone fallow. Resting.
Offshore, all sorts of cool animals are laying in wait.
On a recent walk on the beach, I noticed several abandoned carapaces (shells or coverings) of Horseshoe Crabs. Perhaps you’ve seen them too.
Most noticeable are the remains of the adults; brownish and oval in shape, the carapace can measure up to 15 inches across. Within the species, females are generally larger than the males. Males are identified by the shallow curve on the front end of the carapace – shaped this way so the male can easily rest on top of the female during mating. As I flip over my find, I see that the body and legs are long gone.
Expired horseshoe crabs wash up on the beach and provide valuable food for the myriad collection of godwits, terns and gulls. Smaller carapaces can also be found now and then – as it grows, the horseshoe crab molts and will do so 15 to 20 times in its nearly 20-year life span.
So, here is another interesting fact: Horseshoe crabs are not true crabs.
True crabs have two pairs of antennae, a pair of jaws and five pairs of legs and gills.
Horseshoes, on the other hand, lack antennae and jaws and have seven pairs of legs. In addition, they have appendages similar to those of spiders and scorpions which are used for grasping and crushing. The book lungs fascinate me the most. Flip over a recently deposited horseshoe crab and take a look. Be sure to hold your nose!
Now nestled around offshore habitats near the continental shelf, Horseshoe Crabs are abundant all along the Eastern Seaboard. Our salt marshes, which provide food and protection, are excellent habitat for the prehistoric-like creatures come spring. When water temperatures rise to about 68 degrees, both male and females will return to our marshes and beaches.
Get Outside and discover the subtle wintertime beauty of the Lowcountry for yourself!
Written by Capt. Patte Ranney, SC Master Naturalist
For over 30 years, Outside Hilton Head has provided personalized adventures for all ages. We offer kayak, fishing, nature and dolphin tours. Enjoy our kid’s camps, history excursions, family outings and stand-up paddle boarding. “The Island’s outdoor outfitter” also offers an outstanding selection of clothing, gear at the flagship store in the Plaza at Shelter Cove and a second location in Palmetto Bluff. (843) 686-6996 or www.outsidehiltonhead.com.