The horseshoe crab, dubbed "one of the most misunderstood invertebrates" by the Coastal Discovery Museum, is about to become a lot less mysterious to students in Beaufort County.
As the creatures gather in coastal waters waiting for full-moon tides to spawn, nine teachers are caring for the end result of the prehistoric mating ritual: fertilized eggs.
The Coastal Discovery Museum on Hilton Head Island launched a pilot program this year to teach students of all ages about the horseshoe crab, from its life cycle to its importance in the biomedical industry.
Curator of education Amy Tressler kicked off the program Tuesday, when she doled out eggs to nine teachers in schools all over the county. Each got about a teaspoon full of 50 to 100 eggs and a tank with all the fixings, courtesy of the museum and a Bargain Box grant.
The museum has a permit to harvest the eggs from the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, which protects the species. Tressler has been studying the possibility of the program, which exists in states such as Maryland, for years.
"The teachers are going to test it out with their students this first year and come up with lessons, and we'll move forward from there," Tressler said. "We wanted teachers who were excited about doing this."
Hilton Head Preparatory School science teacher Angela Taylor teaches seventh and eighth grades, and next year, she'll also have fourth- and fifth-grade students.
The horseshoe crabs her students will share the classroom with will be used in all sorts of lessons targeted at the different age groups, she said. She'll have the creatures for a year before releasing them into the wild next spring.
Students will measure the salinity and pH levels in the water every week. They'll discover how the eggs are an important food source for migratory shorebirds and how the horseshoe crab's blue, copper-based blood is used to test for harmful bacteria in new medicines.
Even though her classes won't meet the creatures until school reconvenes Monday, Taylor has been visiting her classroom every day to check on the new additions.
"They'll probably be surprised by how they look: They're green and they're tiny," she said. "Once they've been incubating awhile, they'll be translucent, and you can see the trilobite spinning around."
Daufuskie Island Elementary School children will go beyond the classroom on a field trip in May, when they'll help master naturalist John Ferguson and DNR's Al Segars tag horseshoe crabs.
"We have a number of children who go to the elementary school who are very curious and very interested in the natural environment here on Daufuskie," Ferguson said.
The horseshoe tagging program, in its second year, helps Segars research the creatures' migratory patterns.
But Segars said the real point of the tags is educating Lowcountry residents about the living fossil, especially about what to do when confronted by the familiar mating-season sight of horseshoe crabs flipped on their backs.
Beachgoers should help stranded horseshoe crabs by turning them over by the shell, taking care not to touch the tail because they use it to move.
"We want them to feel comfortable picking up the horseshoe crabs and putting them back in the water," Segars said. "There's no weapons involved -- horseshoe crabs can't bite, sting or hurt you."