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Unknown Life of Lobsters: Sex, Robots, and Beyond

Sean Markey
National Geographic News
August 24, 2004
 
Even Lewis Carroll might have had trouble fathoming the complex, conflict-driven world of lobsters. Trevor Corson, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based journalist and editor, spent two years as a lobsterman in Little Cranberry Island, Maine, before writing the recently published The Secret Life of Lobsters: How Fishermen and Scientists Are Unraveling the Mysteries of Our Favorite Crustacean (HarperCollins). National Geographic News caught up with Corson on land.

Let's cut to the chase and talk mating: What does it take for a male lobster to score?

You have to be a boxing champion. Lobsters hate each other and fight over everything all the time. But males in particular duel constantly to establish dominance. They're always fighting over the best shelter.


Usually in a particular neighborhood, one male establishes himself as the local ogre, the dominant alpha male. And once his status is secured, he enforces it. Every night, he goes out and beats up all the other lobsters in the neighborhood, kicks them all out of their houses, just to remind them who's in charge.

Females apparently find this abuse particularly arousing, and they become very interested in the dominant alpha male. [Lobsters] all know where each other lives. It's very interesting—they have a map of the neighborhood.

Females will regularly go and visit the entrance to the alpha male's shelter after he's been beating them up. They follow him home, and they perform a variety of courtship rituals.

The problem is, the alpha male is so belligerent, he's not really interested in romance. He just wants to beat people up all the time. So the females have to cajole him into a romantic mood.

How does a female seduce the male?

Essentially by drugging him into submission. When lobsters fight and when they flirt—in both cases they communicate with each other basically by pissing in each other's faces. They have these little urine-release nozzles right under their eyes, and they squirt urine at each other.

The urine is laced with various kinds of information. In a fight it could be a communication of how aggressive or belligerent or dominant a lobster is.

The females, in this case of mating, go to the dominant male's shelter entrance and squirt their pheromone-laced urine into his shelter. This relaxes [the alpha male] and reduces his aggression. He starts to swoon a little bit. He fans these little flippers under his tale to spread the urine around his apartment and savor its aroma.

The females do this a few times while they're [over] to visit. He gradually becomes used to them. [Females] do a few other little courtship rituals, some little dances and stuff.

Gradually one of them will get bold enough to push her way into his lair. He will by then be subdued enough to let this happen.

What happens after seduction?

She has to take her clothes off in order to mate. Female lobsters only mate right after they shed their shell. So by moving in with him, they're getting protection from this dominant male in their most vulnerable moment.

So they shed their shell, and this beautiful copulatory event occurs. The details are probably too racy for nationalgeographic.com.

Then they have this bond for about ten days to two weeks. She lives with him until her shell hardens up again, and then she moves out. That's it. It's done.

Except that there's a new female waiting on the doorstep. So all the females of the neighborhood create this sisterhood, and they take turns mating with that one dominant male.

The scientists I write about came up with a name for this—it's also evidenced in other kinds of creatures. It's called serial monogamy. Unfortunately, the beta males in the neighborhood don't get any action.

It sounds like high school. Gals pined for the bad boys.

Or just the bad boy on the block—the worst boy on the block.

Could you share the story about the time Mary Tyler Moore fell for "a buff 65-year-old male [lobster] named Spike?"

Yes, Mary Tyler Moore and the love of her life, Spike. This apparently occurred in a seafood restaurant in Malibu, California. There was a tank there with a big, old lobster named Spike.

I guess [Moore] was somewhat upset by the prospect of this venerable lobster being stuck in this tank. She offered to buy Spike for a thousand dollars so she could fly him to Maine and release him. The restaurant owner refused to sell Spike, having grown quite attached to him.

Rush Limbaugh, the radio talk show host, heard about this and offered two thousand dollars for Spike and offered to eat him. Now Rush Limbaugh probably didn't realize that even lobstermen who love eating lobster would protect Spike and not eat it. Because lobstermen protect the big old lobsters—those are the ones that repopulate the lobster stock.

Mary Tyler Moore continued her crusade and joined up with PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, to protest lobster eating. They have a little mascot [and motto], which says, "Being boiled hurts." Unfortunately, their mascot is red, which suggests it's already been boiled. But that's a minor detail.

What's the most surprising thing you learned about lobsters while researching your book?

Well, I had no idea about their mating habits, which are very interesting and surprising. At the same time, when you find out that this is what lobsters do, it's sort of funny, because it sounds so familiar.

I think one of the most striking things was to realize that lobsters appear able to recognize each other as individuals. This was discovered through a series of experiments involving a lobster boxing ring. Scientists in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, created a small lobster boxing tank for fighting matches.

They would put two equally matched lobsters in the tank together and record the fight sequence of the blows exchanged. [The researchers] would score points for each lobster and determine which lobster won. They did this also with the lobsters blindfolded. They made these little plastic blindfolds for the lobsters to see whether the lobsters were using their eyes.

When they restaged the match between the same lobsters, the lobster that had lost against the previous opponent always backed down immediately. Somehow this lobster was recognizing this other lobster.

It wasn't just that that loser lobster had become a sissy or something. When matched with a new lobster, he fought ferociously. So he was recognizing that previous lobster. They blindfolded him, and it didn't make a difference.

So we get back to this pissing-in-each-other's-faces thing. [The scientists] catheterized a lobster with little tubes attached to its face and collected urine during combat. It turned out that without the urine in the water, the lobsters couldn't recognize each other.

With this individual odor signaling going on, the loser lobster could recognize the winning lobster for up to a week. Then after a week, they would have to restage the fight again to decide anew who the winner was.

The fact that lobsters were recognizing each other as individuals based on their urine odor signatures during combat was probably one of the more striking pieces of information I gleaned while working on this [book].

I'd worked on lobster boats for two years. I thought I knew something about lobsters.

As you say, scientists have gone to some pretty extraordinary lengths to decode the secrets of lobster behavior. One team you write about monitored lobsters in a tank 24/7 for six months. Is it a stretch to think Jane Goodall had a better deal?

Well one of the people who did that monitoring as a grad student, Diane Cowan, is one of the most wonderful characters I write about in the book. She has gone on to spend her life doing all kinds of lobster work. She has been referred to now in the local press as the "Jane Goodall of lobsters."

It's not a bad life. I think some of those long nights in the basement laboratory at 2 a.m. taking data notes on lobster behavior may have been somewhat tedious. But Diane has been obsessed with lobsters.

This was the wonderful thing about many of the scientists I met. They were obsessed with lobsters in this way. They had this quirky passion for this animal and pursued it. They love the work.

Diane, for example, now lives on a beautiful Maine windswept island overlooking a beautiful harbor. [She] has a giant lobster pound—a big pool, donated to her research project next to her house—where she now has 300 lobsters of various ages, sizes, and genders.

She and her colleagues go scuba diving several times a week to monitor the status of lobsters inside the pool. She [also] has a [lobster] sonar-tagging project out in the bay.

It's interesting, because Diane likes to eat a lobster dinner at the end of the day. She worked as a waitress in a lobster restaurant to support her research habit for quite awhile. It's a complicated world.

What is a Robo-Lobster, and should we be afraid?

There's a lab at MIT that's funded by the Pentagon where they build underwater robots. These things are now being used as AUVs, autonomous underwater vehicles. They were used in the Iraq campaign as mine sweepers.

They have minds of their own. They go out and do reconnaissance without instructions and come back and report in.

So the scientists at the same lab teamed up with the scientists who were doing the smelling/urine-release experiments to design a computer version of a lobster to test their theory of how a lobster tracked odors in the water. They built this little thing with wheels. It was about the size of a lobster. It had little detectors on it like a lobster nose.

The first Robo-Lobster was a qualified success. It was the first type of that kind of underwater automaton to do that type of work.

It's come a long way since then. The Pentagon is now funding Robo-Lobster research to the tune of millions of dollars in the hopes of developing an army of robotic undersea mine-sweepers that could be dropped from low-flying aircraft before a beachhead assault.

These things would scurry around on the bottom and blow themselves up on command whenever they find a mine. So this may be the future of lobster research.

Hopefully these things won't escape and start propagating in New England waters. Because it will make lobstermen's jobs all that much more dangerous—hauling up self-destructing robotic-automaton lobsters in their traps.

These things now have legs, feelers, and everything. So God knows what's in store for us in the robotic-lobster warfare department.

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