“They’re within one large branch of the arthropods, which are
the chelicerates that include spiders, ticks, and mites,” Pawlik says.
While the name is a little misleading, there is a reason behind it.
When flipped over, the front part of their exoskeleton is shaped like
a horseshoe. And their legs resemble those of crabs.
“Their legs are jointed like crabs’ and they have claws at the ends
of their legs, so they look like crab legs,” Gould says. “But a true
crab has 10 legs, and they have 12, so they can’t be real crabs.”
These docile creatures have been around forever — over 400 mil-lion
years, according to the geological record. That means they were
here long before the dinosaurs. And unlike the dinosaurs, horseshoe
crabs managed to survive.
“They were around when the trilobites were around,” Pawlik
says, referring to extinct marine arthropods that first appeared at the
beginning of the Cambrian Period, about 542 million years ago.
Fossils of horseshoe crabs are identical to today’s living horseshoe
crabs. Nothing has changed over the eons, earning them the name
NE OF THE MOST POPULAR exhibits at the
North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher is the touch
pool, where visitors can get literal hands-on knowl-edge
of sharks, stingrays, softshell turtles, and, per-haps
the facility’s most popular creature, the strange
and exotic horseshoe crab.
“They are an animal that our schoolchildren fall in
love with,” says Andy Gould, outreach coordinator at
Not everyone immediately warms to the idea of getting close to
these peculiar creatures. Their ridged exoskeletons, pointy tails, and
spider-like legs can make them appear sinister, whether encoun-tered
at the touch pool or in the wild.
“Everyone thinks the tail is somehow poisonous or dangerous,
but it isn’t,” says Joseph Pawlik, professor of Marine Biology at
University of North Carolina Wilmington. “They are incredibly
Despite the name, they are not actually crabs at all.