With waders on and flashlights attached to their caps, volunteers head from Pikes Beach parking lot in West Hampton Dunes down the sandy beach to the water's edge. There, two days before the light of a new moon, hundreds of horseshoe crabs wade in the shore's shallow water.
The group of 15 or so are there to count, measure and tag the limulus polyphemus (more closely related to the spider than the crab) as part of a state monitoring program happening over the next few weeks at 11 sites around Long Island. The counting follows the schedule of full and new moons, which is tied to the crab's spawning season -- and often takes place in the middle of the night.
"It's very interesting," says Centerport resident Lucienne Pereira, 49, who was helping count and measure the critters. "You learn things that you didn't know before."
Others, like Kaitlyn Dayton, who teaches at Harbor Country Day School in St. James, say they do it to pass lessons on to students about the crabs' importance to the Island's ecosystem.
Volunteers are an integral part of the program, run by Cornell Cooperative Extension in conjunction with the state's Department of Environmental Conservation.
"I found an even bigger one," Brandon Sclafani, 6, says proudly as he scoops a crab from the water and holds it up. His father, Matt Sclafani, runs the program for Cornell Cooperative Extension. Soon, Brandon has given up his job of handing out the monitoring tags to play with the crabs.
Farther down the beach, a small group of volunteers is using a device to count crabs along the shore. Others measure the shells with a special ruler and determine the sex (males are smaller than females) before using a small power drill to make a hole and tag the crab, which gives its location, date and other information.
About 850 horseshoe crabs were tagged over two counting nights at Pikes Beach.
"It's an educational experience," says Sclafani. "The whole program is citizen-based science. Without the volunteers, we couldn't cover the amount of sites we cover."
That's one reason site coordinators Gina and Mark Cappiello of West Hampton Dunes come out often to volunteer.
"They need the help," says Gina Cappiello. And, she says, the science part of the experience is interesting.
Since the counting is done at night during high tides, hours can vary from an 8 p.m. start to gatherings that get going in the wee hours of 1 or 2 a.m. Sessions typically last less than two hours.
WHY IT MATTERS
The presence of the crabs is important for both environmental and biomedical reasons.
Horseshoe crabs lay eggs, which migratory shore birds and local fish eat as part of the fragile ecosystem of Long Island. Those that hatch boost the population of crabs, keeping the supply strong.
And a little-known fact: Horseshoe crabs' blue blood contains hemocyanin, which has an antibacterial effect. It is used for medical research, including testing of any implants used in the human body, according to Rachel Sysak of the Department of Environmental Conservation, who helped lead the counting.
Says Sysak, "Just about every medical implant is tested with horseshoe crab blood for purity."
CRAB COUNTING CALENDAR
WHEN Friday, 6/21 at 11 sites around Long Island. Additional counting nights scheduled for June 24 and 26, with early July sessions possible. Registration required.
INFO 631-727-7850, nyhorseshoecrab.com
GOOD TO KNOW You don't need a science background, just curiosity and a good pair of waterproof shoes. No flip-flops.
LONG ISLAND SITES
* Jones Beach Boat Basin, Wantagh
* WaterFront Center, Oyster Bay
* Captree State Park, Babylon
* Pikes Beach, West Hampton Dunes
* Squires Pond, Hampton Bays
* Morton Wildlife Preserve, Noyack
* Nassau Point, Southold
* Mount Sinai Harbor
* Flax Pond, Old Field
* West Meadow Beach, Stony Brook
* Crab Meadow Beach, Northport