The Newtown Pentacle

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nameless reprisals

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It’s National Fudge Day, in these United States.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

To recap the last two posts, a humble narrator journeyed from Astoria to southeastern Brooklyn’s Plumb Beach to attend a lecture about Horseshoe Crabs offered by the NYCH2O outfit and which was led by my high school biology teacher – Alan Ascher. The first post covered the journey and setting, the second one discussed some of the characteristics of Plumb Beach, this one focuses right in on the Atlantic Horseshoe Crab itself – aka Limulus polyphemus. Scroll down to check them out.

That’s Mr. Ascher, and a horseshoe crab, above.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Plumb Beach faces out into a section of Rockaway Inlet, nearby Sheepshead Bay, and part of the totality of Jamaica Bay. Once fairly close to environmental ruination due to the ocean dumping of garbage, open sewers, and the development of highways and airports, large chunks of Jamaica Bay are now a part of the Gateway National Recreation Area and Wildlife Refuge – a Federally administered series of parks and conservation areas – and have therefore been recovering environmentally. There’s still a long way to go, of course, but compared to what this area looked like back in the 1980’s when I was in high school – it’s practically pristine in comparison.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

During May and June (particularly), but pretty much throughout the early summer, the so called “living fossils” which man calls the “Atlantic Horseshoe Crab” enact a mating dance. These critters first appeared in the fossil record about 450 million years ago, during the Ordovician Age. As a note, during the Ordovician, plants – let alone animals – hadn’t really begun to migrate out of the ocean onto the land yet. These creatures aren’t actually crabs (or crustaceans), and are instead part of a seperate subphylum called the Chelicerata. Their closest modern relatives are actually spiders and ticks.

from wikipedia

Horseshoe crabs have three main parts to the body: the head region, known as the “prosoma”, the abdominal region or “opisthosoma”, and the spine-like tail or “telson”. The smooth shell or carapace is shaped like a horseshoe, and is greenish grey to dark brown in colour. The sexes are similar in appearance, but females are typically 25 to 30% larger than the male and can grow up to 60 cm (24 in) in length (including tail).

Horseshoe crabs possess the rare ability to regrow lost limbs, in a manner similar to sea stars.

A wide range of marine species become attached to the carapace, including algae, flat worms, mollusks, barnacles, and bryozoans, and horseshoe crabs have been described as ‘walking museums’ due to the number of organisms they can support. In areas where Limulus is common, the shells, exoskeletons or exuviae (molted shells) of horseshoe crabs frequently wash up on beaches, either as whole shells, or as disarticulated pieces.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Mr. Ascher demonstrated the various anatomical features of the Horseshoe Crab, which despite its fearsome appearance is quite benign and harmless to humans. It has a set of “book gills” which are those flappy looking structures nearby its shell hinge, and possesses two sets of fairly primitive “eyes” which exhibit varying levels of sensitivity.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The blood of a Horseshoe Crab is not hemoglobin (iron) based, as most living creatures upon the earth are, and is instead copper based. Within its circulatory system, the crab’s blood is greyish white to pale yellow in color, but it turns a bright blue when atmospherically oxygenated. This helps them survive the high pressure and low oxygen environment where they spend most of their time, and their blood is harvested by the pharmaceutical industrial complex in pursuance of the creation of  “limulus amebocyte lysate” or “LAL.” This material is used to detect the presence of bacterial endotoxins in pharmaceuticals and artificial joint replacements, and believe it or not – enzymes from their blood are used on the International Space Station to detect blooms of fungi and bacteria growing on common surfaces.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The NYC H2O tour ended, and on my way back to civilization, I spotted a dead ray just sitting there on the sand. Desiccated by the sun, I was reminded of an old European Sailor’s craft, common during the age of sail, which would see rays of this type turned into “Jenny Hanivers” by skillful knife and needlework. Jenny Hanivers were offered for sail by sailors during port visits as baby mermaids, basilisks, or any number of imaginary critters to the gullible landlubbers.

from wikipedia

Jenny Hanivers have been created to look like devils, angels and dragons. Some writers have suggested the sea monk may have been a Jenny Haniver.

The earliest known picture of Jenny Haniver appeared in Konrad Gesner’s Historia Animalium vol. IV in 1558. Gesner warned that these were merely disfigured rays and should not be believed to be miniature dragons or monsters, which was a popular misconception at the time.

The most common misconception was that Jenny Hanivers were Basilisks. As Basilisks were creatures that killed with merely a glance, no one could claim to know what one looks like. For this reason it was easy to pass off Jenny Hanivers as these creatures which were still widely feared in the 16th century.

In Veracruz, Jenny Hanivers are considered to have magical powers and are employed by curanderos in their rituals. This tradition may have originated in Japan, where fake ningyo similar to the Fiji mermaid that were produced by using rogue taxidermy are kept in temples.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Well, that wraps up the story of going to Plumb Beach and checking out the Horseshoe Crab scene with my high school Marine Biology teacher. I did apologize to him for being thirty four years late to class, btw.

See you Monday, with something completely different, at this – your Newtown Pentacle.


Upcoming Tours and events

Newtown Creek, Greenpoint to Hunters Point, walking tour with NYCH2O – June 29th, 7-9 p.m..

Experience and learn the history of the western side of Newtown Creek, as well as the East River Parks Hunters Point with NCA Historian Mitch Waxman details here.


“follow” me on Twitter- @newtownpentacle

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Written by Mitch Waxman

June 16, 2017 at 11:00 am

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