The unresolved status of the proximate cause for sexual size dimorphism in horseshoe crabs has practical consequence, because harvest recommendations rely on assumptions about sex-specific growth and maturity. We propose and evaluate competing hypotheses for the proximate cause of sexual size dimorphism in horseshoe crabs (Limulus polyphemus) by comparing size and estimated age frequencies from spring-captured juveniles (n = 9,075) and adults (n = 36,274) to predictions from the competing hypotheses. We found that the number of identifiable juvenile size distributions was greater for females than males and the probability of remaining a juvenile was higher for females than males among older juveniles. These findings are consistent with males maturing earlier than females. Molt increments and mean sizes were similar for male and female juveniles, which is not consistent with differential growth. Among adults, one size distribution accounted for ≥90% of females regardless of carapace wear. Also, size ratio of adult females to males was 1.26, and size ratio of the largest adult to largest juvenile female was 1.28. These observations are not consistent with females continuing to molt as adults. Differential-maturity is the most parsimonious explanation for sexual size dimorphism in Delaware Bay horseshoe crabs. In addition, because of a low frequency of juvenile females >195 mm relative to adult females and male-biased sex ratios starting at 105 mm, we hypothesize that females, more than males, migrate as older juveniles and mature in the ocean. Management implications include that (1) minimum size limits, as previously suggested, would not allocate harvest to older adults as intended because size does not indicate age among adult horseshoe crabs in the Delaware Bay population, and (2) the Shuster Horseshoe Crab Reserve, which has reduced harvest on the continental shelf, could be protecting older juveniles and newly mature females from harvest prior to their first spawn.
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Vol. 28 • No. 2