Sacred Heart’s Project Limulus receives grants


Sacred Heart University biology professor Jennifer Mattei talks about Project Limulus with a class. (Tracy Deer-Mirek photo)

Project Limulus, a conservation program aimed at studying and preserving Limulus polyphemus or the American horseshoe crab, within the Department of Biology at Sacred Heart University, has been selected as a recipient of grants from both the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund (DWCF) and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s (NFWF) Long Island Futures Fund, totaling $50,000.

Disney’s grant is part of the fund’s $20 million milestone in conservation giving since the DWCF began in 1995. Money from both grants will support undergraduate research, public education and community programs that involve students and volunteers in conservation efforts. This is the second consecutive year that the Disney Fund has recognized this work.

Mark Beekey, associate professor of biology, and Jennifer Mattei, associate professor of biology and director of Sacred Heart’s Professional Science master’s program, have directed a team of students and other devoted citizen scientists and conservationists on a mission to preserve the American horseshoe crab for the past decade.

Beekey and Mattei were recently appointed as members of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Species Survival Commission Horseshoe Crab Specialist Group. The goals of this group are to update the data on horseshoe crab population dynamics along the eastern coast of the United States, review the use of horseshoe crabs by pharmaceutical companies and the fishing industry and improve education concerning the plight of this species in the United States and, in particular, the three Asian horseshoe crab species.

Scientists and medical researchers use a derivative from the crab’s blood called Limulus Amebocyte Lysate (LAL) to test human vaccines for bacterial contamination and in the development of anti-cancer medications. The horseshoe crab eggs and larvae also play a critical role in supporting birds and other species, ranging from Maine to Florida, and are valued by commercial fishermen who use them as bait.

With the help of many valuable volunteers and partners, the Project Limulus has been able to tag more than 70,000 crabs supplied by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service along the coastline of Long Island Sound.

“There are 20 or so groups who participate every year,” Beekey said. “For example, we have groups like the Maritime Aquarium, the Branford Land Trust, Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center and the Bruce Museum in Greenwich that have continued to support us year after year.”

Efforts continue to locate and count the animals, whose numbers have declined since the early 1990s. Once the horseshoe crabs are tagged, they are sent back into the Sound to migrate. Each tag has a Project Limulus phone number on it, and when a participant spots a tagged crab, he or she can call it in. Through this process, movements are mapped and data is collected on population dynamics, such as adult movement patterns, site fidelity, sex ratio and spawning behavior.

Beekey noted that of the tags sent out, 12,000 have been recaptured.

“This shows us that the crabs move across the Sound, equally east to west as north and south,” he said. “Rarely are the tagged animals found outside of the Sound. Actually, about 98% of the crabs remain in the Sound.”

Additionally, the grant is used to fund a community outreach effort coordinated by Adam Rudman, an adjunct biology instructor at Sacred Heart University as well as an alumnus of the biology department. During the summer, he conducts field trips for school groups and volunteers with the help of undergraduate research assistants. Just one program can have over one hundred student participants.

Rudman, along with another alumnus, Christopher Mahl, are also developing lesson plans for kindergarten through 12th grade teachers through this program, which will be available on the Project Limulus website. Tagging kits will be provided for teachers and students, which will be mutually beneficial both for the collection of data for Project Limulus and for the classrooms’ individual activities. Sacred Heart students are encouraged to get involved, as well as other schools who have previously categorized their Project Limulus experiences as part of their “learning labs.”

Sacred Heart’s Project Limulus was among 80 projects selected from DWCF in 2012 for their efforts to inspire people and collaborations to protect the world’s wildlife and to connect kids and communities to nature.

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