Napatree Point Conservation Area hosts more than scenic views
Napatree Point Conservation Area is a scenic area just outside of Watch Hills' Historical District in Westerly. It is also the site of a lesser known but important study of the horseshoe crab.
Napatree Point Conservation Area has a unique geological structure. The area consists of a one and a half mile-long peninsula that juts west out of the southern-most point in Watch Hill, Rhode Island. This makes this area the western-most point in mainland Rhode Island. The southern side of the peninsula is fed by ocean water from the Atlantic Ocean, creating rough waves. The North side of the peninsula is fed by the Pawcatuck River and the Atlantic Ocean in the Little Narragansett Bay area. This generates calm, brackish water. Napatree Point also contains a lagoon on the Northern side of the peninsula, about one mile towards the ocean.
According to the Watch Hill Conservancy on the Conservancy website, “The Napatree Point Conservation Area is a natural preserve, an important bird nesting and migratory resting area.”
They go on to say they are partial owners of the area, which is shared with the Watch Hill Fire District. They gained their ownership after the Hurricane of 1938. The hurricane destroyed the houses that stood on the peninsula. The land was soon after bought by the government and handed over in an effort to protect the ecosystem.
One initiative of the Watch Hill Conservancy is in collaboration with Sacred Heart University, called Project Limulus. The University says the project is, “a study examining the ecology of the Long Island Sound horseshoe crab population and a data-gathering network to potentially direct conservation programs for the horseshoe crab.”
The horseshoe crab, also called Limulus polyphemus, occasionally finds refuge to mate along the Northern shores of Napatree Point. Females lay thousands of eggs at one time in the sand. They are then fertilized by one or more males, which climb atop the female. Project Limulus tracks the numbers of single males, single females and mating groups along the shoreline. Naturalists tag them specifically at the full and new moons in the summer, which have the highest tides and ideal conditions for mating.
So why is Sacred Heart University so concerned with the horseshoe crab population?
Horseshoe crabs are one piece of a bigger ecosystem. Without horseshoe crabs many New Englander species would not survive. Species of migratory birds feed on these eggs that are uncovered during low tide in order to survive demanding northward migration. In fact, the horseshoe crab population was found to be diminishing when it was noticed the population of the Red Knot migratory bird was decreasing.
The decrease in horseshoe crabs is partially due to overfishing, as many fishermen use horseshoe crabs as bait.
It is also important to remember humans rely on the natural ecosystem as well. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports that Horseshoe crabs contain a unique substance in their blood called an endotoxin. This endotoxin, known as limulus amebocyte lysate or LAL, has the amazing ability to surround an impurity with a membrane, creating a protective barrier. LAL is used to test all biomedical devices for impurities before they are used on humans.
The Limulus Project conducted at Napatree Point Conservation Area is of vital importance for many reasons. Not only is the preservation of the horseshoe crab itself of value, but it also leads to our increasing understanding of the many components of the ecosystem. On a larger scale, the demand for the
LAL endotoxin is significant. We have come to rely greatly on the LAL endotoxin, which is presently only found in the blood of horseshoe crabs. This endotoxin ensures the safety of all medical products that come into contact with blood.