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Distributed for Brandeis University Press

Crab Wars

A Tale of Horseshoe Crabs, Ecology, and Human Health

Second Edition

Distributed for Brandeis University Press

Crab Wars

A Tale of Horseshoe Crabs, Ecology, and Human Health

Second Edition

A timely look at the exploitation of a species that has helped with the development of countless drugs and is fast becoming endangered.
Because every drug certified by the FDA must be tested using the horseshoe crab derivative known as Limulus lysate, a multimillion-dollar industry has emerged involving the license to bleed horseshoe crabs and the rights to their breeding grounds. William Sargent presents a thoroughly accessible insider’s guide to the discovery of the lysate test, the exploitation of the horseshoe crab at the hands of multinational pharmaceutical conglomerates, local fishing interests, and the legal and governmental wrangling over the creatures’ ultimate fate. In the end, the story of the horseshoe crab is a sobering reflection on the unintended consequences of scientific progress and the danger of self-regulated industries controlling a limited natural resource. This new edition brings the story up to date as companies race to manufacture alternatives to the horseshoe crab blood, which is now essential for testing vaccines such as those developed to counter COVID-19. However, horseshoe crab populations are still dwindling, with profound implications not only for the future of the crabs themselves but also for the ecosystems that depend on them.

160 pages | 4 maps | 5 1/2 x 8 1/2

Biological Sciences: Ecology

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“Here's a species older than time, a species key to the great migrations transecting our planet--and in the space of a few years our short-term interests have brought it close to ruin. It's a powerful metaphor (one wishes it were only a metaphor) and its tale is told with enormous care and balance. And with just the faintest hint of optimism at the end.”

Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature

"This new edition contains five additional chapters, a new epilogue, and a decidedly enlarged perspective on the possibilities for the future of these creatures given the new biomedical challenges now faced by humanity and the possibility that synthesizing what their blue blood was once the only known source of may now be possible.”

The Well-read Naturalist

"Makes for fascinating reading. . . . Crab Wars offers a compact introduction to the horseshoe crab and the controversy it has recently engendered."

Journal of the History of Biology

"A popular interest book about how a 300 million year old organism became essential to the modern pharmaceutical industry. Sargent traces the discovery of horseshoe crab blood as the perfect in-vitro test for gram-negative bacteria through the development of a multi-million dollar business. He recounts the battles between multinational pharmaceutical companies to "bleed" enough crabs for Limulus lysate and the demand for crabs by the bait fishery. Regulation of the fishery by individual states complicates the issue of preserving this natural resource."

Northeastern Naturalist

“This 2021 update of a book originally published in 2002 has lost none of its relevance and has actually gained some in light of the COVID-19 pandemic . . . refreshingly non-academic despite its publication by an academic press. . . . A science/medicine book with a breezy style.”


“A harrowing tale of dire unintended consequences…Crab Wars is measured, thoughtful, informative, examining the crab's use in medicine from the 1950's to Operation Warp Speed. . . . A ‘must-have’ for both college and public library Science and Environmental Studies collections, highly recommended.”

Midwest Book Review

"This beautifully written book is nonfiction but it reads like a particularly gripping novel. It’s filled with natural history, scientific discovery, pharmaceutical developments, and plenty of politics, and yet, Sargent tells the horseshoe crabs’ tale with enormous compassion and balance. The fascinating story of the horseshoe crab is a thought-provoking and sobering reflection on the unintended consequences of scientific progress and the dangers posed when self-regulating industries control a limited natural resource."

Grrl Scientist | Forbes

“A revelation... a fascinating book”


"William Sargent’s updated second edition of Crab Wars, released first in 2003 and again in 2021, serves as a twenty-year retrospective on the state of the horseshoe crab, a timely argument for protecting the species, and a cautionary tale. Certainly, the current pandemic, certain prospect of more in the future, and the tsunami of biotechnological developments in recent years, many driven by the pandemic, make the horseshoe crab’s survival more important than ever."

The Internet Review of Books

Table of Contents


Part I: Early Lessons
Chapter 1: A Day in the Life of a Hunter-Gatherer
Chapter 2: Carl Shuster
Chapter 3: First Lessons
Chapter 4: At an Ancient Orgy

Part II: Commercialization
Chapter 5: The Conversation
Chapter 6: Bleeding the Crab
Chapter 7: Crabs and Ponies
Chapter 8: “Flugate”
Chapter 9: Confessions of a Horseshoe Crab Farmer
Chapter 10: A Garden Party

Part III: Environmental Conflicts
Chapter 11: Fishing for Bait: The Conch and Eel Fisheries
Chapter 12: A Day at the Beach: Red Knots and Horseshoe Crabs
Chapter 13: The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission
Chapter 14: Jay Harrington vs. Bruce Babbitt
Chapter 15: A Bizarre Incident
Chapter 16: The Decision
Chapter 17: The Loophole
Chapter 18: Raw Lysate: A New Industry
Chapter 19: Numbers, Numbers, Numbers
Chapter 20: Dr. Ling Jaek Ding
Chapter 21: Three Surprises
Chapter 22: The New Kid on the Block: Pease Industrial Park Portsmouth, New Hampshire
Chapter 23: On Pins and Needles: Operation Warp Speed
Chapter 24: Three Asian Crabs
Chapter 25: Afterthoughts

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