The horseshoe crab is effectively a living fossil—it’s been on Earth for 450 million years. But in just a few decades, humans have presented what is arguably the biggest threat yet to their continued existence.
In the 1960s, scientists discovered that horseshoe crab blood could be used to detect even the smallest amounts of harmful bacteria. Since then, the pharmaceutical industry has been using it to make sure our injections, vaccines and surgical implants are all free from contamination.
And so, every year along the U.S. East Coast, 500,000 crabs are collected, cleaned, measured and then drained of as much as one-third of their copper-based, baby-blue blood. Collections also take place across the eastern shores of Mexico and China. Demand for the blood is high—it’s been called blue gold and is reportedly worth up to $60,000 a gallon.
The horseshoe crabs are released back into the ocean soon after the bleeding, but it’s estimated that 15% die as a result of the process. Combined with the use of horseshoe crabs for bait, habitat loss and sea level rise attributable to the climate crisis, some estimate that the crab population has fallen by 80% in 40 years.
But there’s already a way to slow their demise—at least when it comes to our Dracula-like tendencies. Almost two decades ago, a professor at the National University of Singapore created a synthetic solution that may be more effective than horseshoe crab blood at making sure our medical supplies are safe to use. It’s potentially cheaper, too.
For decades, however, the pharmaceutical industry preferred to keep bleeding the horseshoe crabs.