Ocean Literacy and the Red Knot

by Carole McCauley
Northeastern University Marine Science Center, Nahant, MA

The long and tenuous journey of a migrating shorebird, the red knot, is the subject of a new book by Gloucester, MA-based writer and environmentalist, Deborah Cramer. “The Narrow Edge: A Tiny Bird, an Ancient Crab & an Epic Journey” is a highly informative narrative of Cramer’s treks from Tierra del Fuego to the Arctic, where she tracks – over the course of a migration season – the movements of an intrepid sandpiper, the red knot, one of six subspecies of Calidris sandpipers.

Poignant is the parallel between the distance and conditions this improbable sandpiper endures to reach its goal and the learning journeys facilitated by marine educators. This may be particularly true of the journeys of underserved youth, whose environmental education may be challenged by sporadic engagement, competition for limited resources, and the requirement that many ingredients synchronize in the recipe for environmental literacy.  These audiences are less likely to have well-stocked feeding grounds for learning and inspiration.

The red knot, recently designated as a Threatened Species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, faces similar challenges – reduced feeding habitat, long stretches flying between recharges, and increasingly limited resources on the ground to sustain life – particularly tight competition for a decreasing volume of prey. The story of the red knot is as prolific and compelling as more universally known chronicles of animal migration such as those of the sea turtles or Monarch butterflies. “The Narrow Edge” details key facets of red knot biology (e.g., how they are uniquely adapted to double their weight to prepare for a long flight), critical details of their ideal prey (e.g., “superfood” horesehoe crab eggs), and numerous threats to the life-sustaining habitats required by knots and their prey at every stop in their lengthy journey.

Indeed, to understand the incredible and varied conditions required for the red knot to exist, voluminous research is presented that presents and synthesizes content related to most of the Ocean Literacy Principles, particularly related to the finite resources of the ocean, meteorology and climate, nutrient cycling, biodiversity and ecosystems, the interconnectedness of humans and marine resources, and the need for research and discovery. The book is also full of accounts of everyday heroes devoted, in various ways, to shorebird conservation – from an Olympic athlete-turned-biologist to a wealthy estate owner to field biologists to a military veteran for whom half a lifetime of shoreline monitoring was the balm that eased his post traumatic stress.

This compelling account of the red knot is one worth telling, carefully pulling together and presenting the Essential Principles of Ocean Literacy in a story that is not without hope and inspiration, the fuel that even marine educators need when flying long and hard through our busy seasons.

See Deborah Cramer speak about her new book at the following events:

New England Aquarium 

Thursday, Sept. 24nd, 7:00 p.m.


Mystic Aquarium

Tuesday, Oct. 6th, 6:30pm


High School Students Gather Data on Horseshoe Crabs

While school may be out for the summer, the work conducted by a group of high school students from the Wheeler School in Providence, Rhode Island still resonates. Wheeler School students enrolled in Advanced Placement Biology classes have participated since 2008 in monitoring horseshoe crab populations along the Rhode Island coast during the months of May and June. Their work is part of a larger study run by Dr. Mary-Jane James-Pirri of the Graduate School of Oceanography at the University of Rhode Island, who is conducting similar studies on Cape Cod, and overseen by their AP Biology teacher Sharon Tatulli. Concerns over declines of horseshoe crab populations have prompted much study and many questions. To learn more about the state of local populations, there are several individuals and institutions conducting research and monitoring projects across the region. The data the students are collecting helps scientists understand the population dynamics of horseshoe crabs.

The Wheeler School students, who named themselves “Team Limulus,” completed spawning surveys during new and full moon high tides, as well as two days before and after the high tides. The surveys were run at Gaspee Point Beach in Warwick, RI. During the 2008 season, the largest number of adult crabs observed in the spawning surveys was 69, counted during the evening high tide on June 1, 2008.  Students also tagged 34 crabs with USFWS numbered tags and recorded physical data concerning the tagged crabs in 2008. Results from 2009 are still being compiled.  The students will share the results of their research and monitoring at a presentation on Wednesday, July 28 at 7:30 p.m. at the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary. Cost is $3 for Mass Audubon members, $5 for non-members. Registration is not required. For more information contact the Wellfleet Bay  at 508-349-2615.

Horseshoe Crab Conference

Mass Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary is hosting a free Horseshoe Crab Conference.  The event is scheduled for Saturday, April 17, 9:30 a.m.-3 p.m. and will be held at Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary in South Wellfleet.  This year’s conference will highlight the results of local research. Presentations include  “Movement  Patterns and spawning Dynamics of Horseshoe Crabs in Pleasant Bay”  by Mary-Jane James-Pirri, University of Rhode Island; and “Mortality in Female Horseshoe Crabs from Biomedical Bleeding and Handling: Implications for Fisheries Management” by Alison Leschen, Waquoit Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve; and “Results from Censusing, Tagging, and Juvenile Surveys in Wellfleet Harbor” by Wellfleet Bay’s Sarah Martinez and Katherine Terkanian.  The conference will also include a talk by Dr. Dan Gibson who will provide an overview of horseshoe crab biology and development. And the Division of Marine Fisheries biologist Vincent Malkoski will give some perspective on state-wide censusing of horseshoe crabs, as well as provide an overview of the fishery and current regulations.  While the conference is free, pre-registration is encouraged due to limited space.