In colonial times, lobster was routinely served to prisoners. It was called “the cockroach of the sea.” So what changed? On today’s show, we are bringing you an episode from our friends at Gastropod, a podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history. They take a deep dive into the fascinating history, and biology, of the lobster. (Like, why is it so difficult to figure out a lobster’s age, and how it reproduces?) All your lobster questions will be answered.
Interstitial music in this episode by Black Label Music:
- "New Old" by JT Bates
- "Get Your Shoes On" by Will Van De Crommert
- "Midnight Grind" by Cullen Fitzpatrick
- "Sweet Summer Love" by Stephen Sullivan
Photo courtesy of Rebecca Siegel/flickr.
Trevor Corson: You know, I still get emails about this episode of the show, Friends, where Ross and Rachel, the characters, finally hook up after this long, ambivalent romance. And Phoebe, who’s kind of the tree-hugger in the group, she’s like, “Oh, look, I knew it. He’s her lobster,” because she has this kind of pop culture idea going that lobsters mate for life.
CLIP (PHOEBE): Hang in there, it's gonna happen.
CLIP (ROSS): Well, okay. Now, how do you know that?
CLIP (PHOEBE): Because she's your lobster. Come on, you guys, it's a known fact that lobsters fall in love and mate for life. And, you know what? You can actually see old lobster couples walking around their tank, you know, holding claws. Like...
CLIP (PHOEBE): See, he’s her lobster!
Dan Pashman: This is The Sporkful, it’s not for foodies it’s for eaters, I’m Dan Pashman. Each week on our show we obsess about food to learn more about people. Today’s show comes from our friends at Gastropod, a really great podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history. It’s hosted by Cynthia Graber and Nicola Twilley, and if you’re a Sporkful fan, you’re probably gonna be a Gastropod fan. We’re gonna share one episode of theirs today, in its entirety. In this one, Cynthia and Nicky consider the lobster. I’ll let them take it from here.
Cynthia Graber: First things first—do lobsters really have life-long love affairs as Phoebe claims, or are their relationships a little more complicated than that?
Nicola Twilley: Heads up, for those of you listening with folks who might find lobster sex a little too steamy—sorry—but this episode really does get into it with lobster bedroom action. You have been warned.
Cynthia Graber: I’m getting a little warm already. But speaking of steamy, how did steamed lobsters go from prison fare to the highest echelons of fine dining? How did the lobster go from trashy to fancy?
Nicola Twilley: And finally, what does the military want with our lobsters?
Cynthia Graber: I headed to Maine with my partner Tim for some very critical Gastropod research.
Nicola Twilley: Someone has to do the hard work on this show! Cynthia taking one for the team like the hero she is.
Cynthia Graber: I’m going to see how easy it is to crack this lobster shell. They didn’t give me any cracky-things! Wait, how do I crack a lobster without a lobster cracker?
Tim: You're supposed to bring your own?
Cynthia Graber: It didn’t say!
Cynthia Graber: Turns out, all I had to do was go back up to where the napkins were and grab a nutcracker.
Cynthia Graber: Okay, I’m going to try this. [CRACKS A LOBSTER] Okay, that’s not so bad.
Cynthia Graber: So the cracking wasn’t super hard to do, and then I set right in to gorge myself on all that delicious lobster meat. Of course, all the while dipping it into the cup of melted butter. Mmmm.
Nicola Twilley: One of the very few things I miss about living on the East Coast is the summertime lobster roll. I, personally, am a hot butter girl. Although, I will not turn down a cold mayo roll. I’m equal opportunity when it comes to lobster rolls.
Cynthia Graber: I love lobster rolls, I love whole steamed lobsters, as you listeners all just heard—and summer really is the height of lobster season here. It’s when the waters closer to shore warm up, and the lobsters crawl into that shallower water to molt and mate, and they also happen to crawl into lots of local lobster traps.
Nicola Twilley: Summer is also when the shore in New England finally warms up enough for lots of tourists to crawl out onto it and enjoy a summer vacation.
Cynthia Graber: Tourists like, Trevor Corson, author of the book The Secret Life of Lobsters.
Trevor Corson: My grandparents were summer visitors to Maine when I was a little kid and we would go visit them there. And, as a very small child, I was completely entranced with the lobster boats when they would come into the dock. So I watched them unload their lobster catch. And, to me, the lobstermen were like these cowboys of the east, you know? They were these romantic, rugged individualists. And I was so enamored of them and their boats that I had decided already, pretty early on when I was a kid, that I was going to grow up to be a lobsterman. And that plan didn’t pan out, at all.
Nicola Twilley: Trevor became a writer instead which as everyone knows is way less glamorous. But he figured out a way to finagle himself into becoming a temporary lobsterman, by writing a book about it.
Trevor Corson: And so I actually moved to this small island with 70 people on it year-round in the winter, and lived there for two years, and became what’s called a sternman on a lobster boat. And fisherman use often the term fisherman or sternman in a gender-neutral way. There are females who call themselves that, as well.
Cynthia Graber: Trevor may have just been doing all the kind of dirty work on board to support the captain. But he did get a chance to get up close and personal with a lot of lobsters.
Nicola Twilley: Which some, less lobster-loving people, would call the cockroach of the sea. And like cockroaches, lobsters are survivors. They’ve been around since the days of the dinosaurs.
Trevor Corson: Lobsters go back a long way. I mean, we’re talking 150 million years ago, you would see a lobster that would look almost identical to what we see now. So Jurassic Park times, basically, and this American lobster, you know, hasn’t changed much since then. It’s a really, really basic creature.
Cynthia Graber: Lobsters got in on evolution before a lot of other crustaceans came into the picture, and they were doing pretty well. Trevor says they colonized a lot of the seas around the world.
Trevor Corson: But then, this unfortunate thing happened where they kind of gave rise to their own most serious competitor. The lobster body type evolved into a new type where the tail shrunk down. And that’s what became crabs.
Nicola Twilley: If I’m picturing a crab and a lobster in a cage fight, my first thought is, back the lobster. It’s got that big tail it can use to flip and zoom backward—the crab can only scuttle.
Trevor Corson: The problem is, if they don’t have any protection around—if they happen to get caught without a rock nearby that they can hide under—that tail, even with that big, heavy shell, is a really yummy meal for a large predatory fish.
Nicola Twilley: Yes.
Cynthia Graber: Or predatory human.
Trevor Corson: And the oceans used to be filled with really big predatory fish with strong, bony jaws. And if one of those caught a lobster out in the open it could just bite its tail right off. And that was just a nice, crunchy, calcium-rich snack with a lot of protein to boot.
Cynthia Graber: Crabs lost their tail, and so any time a predator lurks around, they can just quickly burrow into the sand and disappear. So crab populations exploded, and lobsters shrunk.
Nicola Twilley: But the American lobster—it may be vulnerable, but it is a fighter.
Trevor Corson: The American lobster is kind of a bully. I think that reputation is deserved. You know, they walk around with these huge, giant, muscular claws and it’s for a reason. They really like to fight. They fight all the time. They are kind of rugged individualists in their own way. They are fairly solitary. They’re down there in the cold and they’re heavily armoured. And when they’re not fighting with each other all the time, they’re hiding by themselves under rocks.
Nicola Twilley: So yeah, that’s the American lobster. That is its actual scientific name. And it is thoroughly charming lobster, by the sounds of things. Its other distinguishing feature is that it is abundant. There are just a lot of American lobsters.
Cynthia Graber: And the reason we’re blessed with so many of these huge, obstreperous bugs has to do with the fact that lobsters, with their delicious tails, need a lot of nooks and crannies to hide from predators.
Nicola Twilley: And, not to sound like a lobster realtor here, but that is exactly what the Gulf of Maine offers, thanks to some ice age glaciers.
Cynthia Graber: The glaciers pushed across the continent and gathered lots of rocks as they carved up the land and then they ended up in the Gulf of Maine and dropped all those rocks in the water.
Trevor Corson: It’s a vast area of seafloor that just has a lot of rocky terrain underwater. And, I mean, lots of small cobbles and other kinds of rocks that is just the type of terrain a lobster is going to need if it is going to protect itself from predators like codfish.
Nicola Twilley: So the Gulf of Maine really is the perfect place for a vulnerable bully like the American lobster to hide.
Cynthia Graber: Rick Wahle is one of the world’s top American lobster scientists—he’s a professor at University of Maine and is also director of the university’s Lobster Institute. He says the gulf has another lobster-friendly amenity.
Rick Wahle: The other part is the temperature. And we’re sort of in the Goldilocks zone when it comes to just optimum temperatures for the American lobster.
Cynthia Graber: Rick says that lobsters don’t like the water too hot.
Rick Wahle: So in southern New England, that’s sort of at the southern geographic range of the comfort zone of lobsters or has historically been. And as you move into the Bay of Fundy, that’s historically been on the cold side.
Nicola Twilley: And the Gulf of Maine is the happy space in between them. It almost seems like it was designed as a lobster paradise. But lobsters haven’t always flourished there. Probably because back in the day, the Gulf of Maine was also full of cod, which ate all the lobsters.
Cynthia Graber: There aren’t many lobster shells in Native American middens, which are basically like the waste piles near settlements where you do find a lot of oyster shells. Because there really weren’t a lot of lobsters available at the time.
Nicola Twilley: So lobster wasn’t necessarily on the Native American menu. But Trevor says that cod was.
Trevor Corson: They they took plenty of cod. They caught quite decent amounts of cod. So one theory is that Native American fishing actually took the cod numbers down along the coast of New England, you know, before the Europeans even arrived.
Cynthia Graber: Trevor says it’s likely that lobsters were starting to become a bit more plentiful by the time Europeans showed up. But cod were still the biggest lobster predators, and they shaped more than just the lobster population numbers.
Trevor Corson: Basically, any lobster that was able to hide and not get eaten by a cod had to stay in hiding and avoid getting eaten until it was big enough that a cod wouldn’t bother with it. I mean, really big. So actually, what European settlers found when they arrived in the New England area was when they saw a lobster they tended to be really big lobsters. So they were pretty stunned at how big these things were.
Nicola Twilley: Lobsters can get really kind of terrifyingly big.
Rick Wahle: Given the opportunity, lobsters can grow as large as about 45 pounds. That’s the record largest lobster on record.
Cynthia Graber: Rick compared it to his kid.
Rick Wahle: Just to give you a little context. So my son was 45 pounds when he was five-years-old. So, you know, about the weight of a five-year-old kid.
Cynthia Graber: A lobster the size of a five-year-old kid, or a pretty big dog? That is genuinely terrifying.
Nicola Twilley: So apart from being terrified by their size, what did Europeans make of these hard shelled beasts? Did they immediately think, oh, that’s twenty pounds of claw meat! Dinner sorted.
Trevor Corson: The funny thing was the European settlers, who arrived in North America, did recognize the American lobster immediately. It was almost identical to a very closely related species that you find off the coast of Europe and in England and that whole area.
Nicola Twilley: Turns out the American lobster is not the only lobster. Trevor says there are about fifty different species of lobster and they’re found all over the world.
Trevor Corson: The thing is that those European lobsters are nowhere near as abundant for all the reasons we’ve talked about as the American lobster. It was never really worth catching European lobsters for food because they were so scarce. And so when the Europeans arrived here and saw the same thing over here, they’re like, “Oh yeah, that underwater bug that nobody eats.”
Cynthia Graber: But the Europeans were hungry, and so they did occasionally deign to eat lobsters.
Trevor Corson: We think of lobsters today as kind of a luxury meal, but stop and think about it for a second. It’s just a huge bug. Like, it’s not the first thing you necessarily would choose to eat, you know, as far as attractive cuisine goes. So we have a historical record that already, after the pilgrims had been settled just for a little bit—I mean, maybe after their first winter—they were already feeling embarrassed if the lobster was all they had available to serve to someone. So we can tell that they didn’t really consider lobster very high class food. There’s a lot of reports that in the early settler days, in fact, lobster was such a low-class meal that it would only be served to prisoners, for example.
Nicola Twilley: In fact, there’s a persistent urban myth that serving lobster to prison inmates more than once a week was forbidden by law, because it was considered such cruel and unusual punishment. There’s no historical evidence for that, that we can find, but it does point to the fact that lobster really wasn’t considered high class food.
Cynthia Graber: Before lobster could become fancy, there had to be enough of it available to convince New Englanders that it was worthwhile to give these creatures a second chance. That happened when Europeans fished so many deadly cod that the lobster population started to really flourish.
Trevor Corson: The big commodity in those days was fish. I mean, codfish were the desirable commodity. And there’s a whole political economy of how codfish and the hunt for them changed the world. So eating fish, getting codfish, eating them, that was the goal. And lobster was a sideshow to fish.
Nicola Twilley: The big reason cod were king is because you could salt them and preserve them and ship them all over. Cod had legs. So to speak.
Cynthia Graber: But lobsters had no legs. So to speak. The meat was only good for a very, very short time.
Trevor Corson: As soon as a lobster dies a lot of the enzymes in its flesh—it’s very different from a fish in certain ways—the enzymes in the flesh of a lobster start to break down the meat itself. And so it just becomes mushy really quickly. And then lobsters can also sometimes develop toxins if they sit around.
Nicola Twilley: So there was no real point catching lobsters because there was only a very local market for them.
Cynthia Graber: Until the second half of the 1800s, when canning technology arrived in Maine.
Trevor Corson: So that wasn’t the thing that turned it into a really extravagant kind of fancy meal, the way we think of lobster today. But not long after that, there was yet another new technological development, and that was the railroad arriving. So they built, finally, railroad tracks into just the western edge of Maine around the 1870s.
Nicola Twilley: Trains are a lot faster than horse-drawn carriages, and that meant you could take a live lobster out of the water in Maine, put it on ice, and it would stay alive for the whole trip—maybe as far as Chicago, but definitely all the way to Boston and even New York.
Trevor Corson: There’s one story that the newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst—you know, a very wealthy celebrity—was one of the first people who started to make lobster into something special when he ordered a bunch for a dinner party in Colorado. To get the live lobster all the way to Colorado for his dinner party was a sign of how powerful and wealthy he was and the ability to tap this technology of the railroad. So that’s when lobsters’ reputations started to shift.
Cynthia Graber: And then there was one more thing that changed the lobster’s reputation. And actually, it’s because people like my ancestors, new immigrants, started to show up in large numbers in New York City and Boston. Eastern European Jews, Italians, the Irish…
Trevor Corson: And the aristocratic types who weren’t so keen on all these immigrants showing up, they started to look for opportunities to get out of the city. Especially, in the summer. And that’s when you had this wave of sort of privileged, white, rusticator types who started leaving and going and experiencing the rural, rugged beauty of Maine. And that’s when the idea of eating a fresh lobster right out of the hands of, you know, some rugged individualist lobsterman you encountered down at the wharf on your exotic adventure in the summer developed a real cachet.
Nicola Twilley: Boom! Lobster is suddenly the kind of thing Trevor’s great-grandparents would enjoy while summering in Maine. It’s fancy food!
Cynthia Graber: So by the late 1800s and early 1900s, lobsters had started to gain some cachet. And then their numbers exploded in the 1930s and 40s because we had totally decimated the cod population by that point.
Nicola Twilley: So a lot of those fishermen who were not making a living off cod anymore, because there weren’t many left—they become lobstermen.
Cynthia Graber: And lobstermen in Maine made a pretty good living throughout the 20th century.
Trevor Corson: For a long time, the lobster fishery was pretty steady. The amount of lobsters that fishermen caught in Maine stayed pretty constant. Even as more fishermen entered the fishery and even as more traps were added. And that was kind of a scientific puzzle for a while.
Cynthia Graber: But then something weird happened.
Nicola Twilley: Rick says that it used to be that Maine lobstermen caught 20 million pounds of lobster a year, pretty consistently.
Rick Wahle: But it really started to accelerate in the 2000s. And so now, since about 2013, 2014, we’ve been seeing landings that are about six-fold higher than they were back in the 1980s.
Cynthia Graber: Suddenly lobstermen were catching 120 million pounds, and that is worth about a half a billion dollars.
Rick Wahle: Lobsters in Maine are obviously a big deal. They’re iconic for the state, but they’re also really a big deal on a national scale in that they are currently the most valuable single fishery in the nation.
Cynthia Graber: And remember, there were more lobstermen, but even so, the lobster numbers just kept increasing. Usually more pressure would lead to the stocks decreasing, but not for lobsters. There’s a number of things the fishermen do to protect the stocks, but, still, the fact that the numbers seem to have grown so dramatically?
Nicola Twilley: This is deeply confusing for scientists but A-OK for lobstermen. Except that right now, there’s been a huge hit to the market for all those lobsters.
Cynthia Graber: First of all, lobstermen have been on the losing side of a trade war with China.
Nicola Twilley: About 30 percent of the best quality Maine lobsters used to get sold and shipped to China, and then a couple years ago the Trump administration slapped tariffs on China and that market evaporated.
CLIP (REPORTER 1): Vince Montellaro spent the last decade tailoring his lobster wholesale business to feed Chinese demand.
CLIP (REPORTER 2): How significant was that for you?
CLIP (VINCE MONTELLARO): Sales grew 30, 40%.
CLIP (REPORTER 1): But these prawns are now a pawn in a trade war that started a year ago when the U.S. hiked tariffs on Chinese goods, and China responded by raising tariffs on US imports, including lobster. It now costs Chinese companies an extra 25% to buy lobsters from the U.S., so they’re buying them instead from wholesalers in Canada.
Cynthia Graber: That was tough enough, and then COVID hit. And casinos shut down, and cruise ships shut down and restaurants. And picture casinos and cruise ships with their ubiquitous surf and turf dinner? Surf equals lobster. Those two markets are huge for Maine, and they’ve disappeared.
CLIP (REPORTER 3): Maine’s lobster industry is having a difficult year. Prices are down and the pandemic has taken a huge bite out of the restaurant business, which has been one of the biggest markets for lobster.
Nicola Twilley: It’s a huge problem. Among all the other huge problems caused by COVID.
Cynthia Graber: Meanwhile, the lobster population—which remember, nobody knew exactly why it got so big in the first place—now it’s starting to shrink, and nobody knows exactly why that’s starting to happen either.
Trevor Corson: There could be effects of climate change happening. There’s been some disease issues. So there’s so many complex factors. Nothing is static and it’s very unclear exactly how things are going to go.
Dan Pashman: Coming up after the break, Nicky and Cynthia look into more lobster mysteries. How can we tell how old a lobster is? And why have lobsters’ eyes been used to argue against evolution? That’s all coming up -- stick around.
+++ BREAK +++
Dan Pashman: Welcome back to The Sporkful, I’m Dan Pashman. If you’ve been following my quest to invent a new pasta shape, make sure you check out last week’s episode. It’s an all new update on our series, Mission: ImPASTAble. Now that cascatelli is real, and a big hit, what’s next? I try to figure that out. And you’ll hear how my family reacted when the first batch of pasta sold out in less than two hours.
CLIP (DAN PASHMAN): I just got a call from my friend Stacey. She said it’s sold out. The shape has only been on sale for two hours.
CLIP (JANIE PASHMAN): No...
CLIP (DAN PASHMAN): But check the website.
CLIP (JANIE PASHMAN): Maybe they like…here. Pre..[GASP] What so if it says pre-order...wait...
CLIP (DAN PASHMAN): It says that...it says it’s sold out!
CLIP (BECKY PASHMAN): Oh my god!
CLIP (EMILY PASHMAN): Oh my god!
Dan Pashman: That Mission: ImPASTAble is up now, check it out. Okay, back to our lobster deep-dive. Get it? Lobster? Deep dive? I, now, turn it back to Cynthia Graber and Nicola Twilley from Gastropod.
Cynthia Graber: There are other lobster mysteries that scientists have been trying to crack, such as how to tell a lobster’s age.
Raouf Kilada: This is a very important piece of information in the fish and fisheries industry.
Nicola Twilley: This is Raouf Kilada. He’s a marine scientist at the University of New Brunswick and at the Suez Canal University in Egypt. And he told us that knowing a lobster’s age is essential for knowing if it is going to reproduce, which, if so, you should put it back in the ocean. Egg production seems to rise exponentially with a female lobster’s age, so those older lady lobsters are the key to keeping the fishery healthy.
Cynthia Graber: But how to figure out the lobster’s age?
Nicola Twilley: After all, it doesn’t have a birth certificate or an annual party.
Cynthia Graber: Scientists have figured out how to tell how old fish are. They’ve discovered that there’s a tiny bone behind a fish’s eye that’s called an otolith, and it basically keeps a record of how many years the fish has lived.
Raouf Kilada: Just think about the tree with the tree rings in any trunk. By counting those rings, you can estimate the age of this tree. So at the end of the day, by counting the rings in the otolith, you can say: How old is this guy?
Nicola Twilley: Which is great. But it turns out that lobsters don’t have this kind of permanent otolith.
Raouf Kilada: All the crustaceans in general—and the crustacean is the group of animals that include lobsters, shrimps and crabs—unlike fish, they do not grow unless they molt. And the word “molt” means the animal sheds off all hard structure. So even any rings that can be accumulated throughout the life of the animal were believed to be lost during the molt.
Cynthia Graber: So instead, scientists and lobstermen guess a lobster’s age by its size.
Raouf Kilada: And scientists found out that this method is not very accurate.
Nicola Twilley: But, if a lobster loses all its hard structures during the molt, how on earth to find out its real age?
Cynthia Graber: Raouf spent two years trying to find some part of the lobster’s body that kept a record of its lifespan.
Raouf Kilada: So we tried the carapace, the tail, the appendages… the stomach. And we managed to get this teeth-like structure. And it’s called a gastric mill.
Nicola Twilley: This gastric mill thing is weird AF. The thing is, lobsters don’t have teeth in their mouths, but they are carnivores. They eat chewy foods like fish, mussels, sea urchins, even other lobsters.
Cynthia Graber: First, they chop their seafood meal into small pieces with their claws.
Raouf Kilada: But they cannot be digested before they are smashed. So the animal, after chopping the food particles, swallow it into their stomach. Their stomach has about three pieces that look like teeth. And if you know their place, you will not miss it. Dig out the stomach and if you feel it with your two fingers, you will feel the teeth structure inside the stomach.
Cynthia Graber: That is a really bizarre place for teeth—but if you remember our teeth episode, over the course of evolution, there have been some really weird places that teeth ended up.
Nicola Twilley: Somehow, and still no one knows how or why, these stomach teeth save a record of the rings from the whole of the lobster’s life, one ring per year.
Cynthia Graber: Raouf tried this method of aging lobsters again and again, and it really seemed to work. And then came the big test—they received a shipment of lobsters that had been raised their entire lives in tanks.
Nicola Twilley: So people knew their exact age but Raouf didn’t. And the age he arrived at by counting the stomach teeth was… yes, the correct age!
Raouf Kilada: So this was a breakthrough in the study of the American lobster.
Nicola Twilley: Ta-da! But no one believed Raouf. Because those stomach teeth are shed along with all the other hard parts during the molt. So Raouf’s method actually makes no sense.
Raouf Kilada: We had some legit criticism for this work. But the response to those criticisms is very simple. I am not trying to explain the mechanism by which the animal retains the rings.
Cynthia Graber: Raouf’s point is however it works, it works. One mystery kind of solved. But that’s not the only mystery in the life of a lobster.
Trevor Corson: There are many; enough that I could write a whole book about them—but one of the really surprising ones is the lobster’s eye. Which you wouldn’t really expect because they live alone in the dark on the bottom of the ocean.
Trevor Corson: Their eyes are almost completely unique among all creature eyes on earth. Only shrimps and prawns also have this. But every other eye of every other creature basically has a lens. However, lobsters have a completely different kind of eye. Instead of a lens, they have what I would describe as a grid of mirrored boxes. And it’s mathematically perfect. In each eye there’s about 13,000 of these little tapered boxes.
Nicola Twilley: The thing these thirteen thousand mirrored boxes do is gather light from a really wide area, and then focus it on the lobster retina.
Trevor Corson: This is so extraordinary that the lobster’s eye has actually become this really controversial exhibit in the debate over intelligent design versus evolution. Because intelligent design advocates feel there is no way that evolution could lead to a device like this. That it had to be designed by an intelligent creator. And in a way, scientists agree that this design is so ingenious. They actually used it to design and build an X-ray space telescope, designed for the International Space Station. And it’s directly modeled on the lobster’s eye.
Cynthia Graber: Great for the space station—the lobster eye X-ray space telescope can observe a much larger area of sky than a typical telescope, basically 180 degrees. But why does the lobster need such a finely tuned piece of optic technology?
Trevor Corson: They’re down on the bottom, right? They’re looking up, so they’re seeing the light from above. The one thing that we know they need to detect is the arrival of a predatory fish. And so that maybe is a very sensitive system for detecting the motion of a dark shape swimming up over you. And at that point, the lobster has early warning to get the heck out of there.
Nicola Twilley: Amazing as it is, that wide-angle view doesn’t give lobsters a clear picture—they can’t actually see all the details of their local piece of rocky ocean bottom.
Trevor Corson: But they are really good at getting around underwater. We know this. They’re very knowledgeable about their local area on the bottom of the ocean. They know where everything is and they’re extremely well informed about other lobsters in the neighbourhood.
Cynthia Graber: Mystery number three. How in the world do they do this?
Nicola Twilley: Everything about the lobster is weird, but this is maybe the weirdest.
Trevor Corson: Where you and I have a brain, they have a giant bladder right in their head full of urine. And they also have very interesting little glands that create proteins and secrete hormones and stuff into that urine.
Cynthia Graber: It took scientists a little while to figure this out, too, but eventually they noticed these little nozzles in the front of lobster faces.
Trevor Corson: And scientists realized they were squirting something out of that. And it was discovered that, actually, this is how lobsters urinate. They urinate out the front of their faces through these little nozzles. And they can, at will, squirt this out the front of their face.
Nicola Twilley: So they squirt their pee as far as they can from the front of their faces. Cool. But this is not just a pissing contest for lobsters.
Trevor Corson: Lobsters are basically lacing their own urine with identifiers and communication signals in the molecules they put into their urine. And then they walk around projecting this plume of speech and identification ahead of them. It squirts out about the length of five lobsters. So they’re basically walking around advertising who they are and how they feel by pissing in each other’s faces. And this is how they interact.
Cynthia Graber: The lobsters have to have a way to sense all the chemicals in the pee, and they do it using tiny antennae that are like little noses.
Trevor Corson: And they have a highly sophisticated, whole social system based on this communication through pee.
Nicola Twilley: But wait there’s more. Lobster noses, lobster eyes…
Cynthia Graber: Mystery number four, the lobster penis.
Trevor Corson: The look of the lobster has fascinated people for a long time. Artists have been obsessed with the appearance of lobsters. There’s something very, I almost want to say, sexual about the way a lobster looks. It’s just so muscular and hard—OK. Anyway, the lobster’s sex life, perhaps because of this, is also been of great interest over the centuries of scientific curiosity. So believe it or not, even going back as far as Aristotle. Aristotle wondered how lobsters have sex.
Nicola Twilley: Aristotle was not alone. This is a question that has plagued the world’s great thinkers for hundreds of years. The male lobster has no visible penis, which really bothered male scientists.
Cynthia Graber: It is indeed really hard to find.
Tim: First we’ve got to get the Spanish wine. Priorities.
Cynthia Graber: Okay, so there’s something that puzzled scientists for a really long time
Cynthia Graber: And it is: what and where is the lobster’s penis?
Tim: Well, clearly the tail is tucked modestly up under the body, so I’m going to guess somewhere there.
Cynthia Graber: Look, these all look like legs… [LAUGHS] What do you see?
Tim: You’re the expert, it looks like a giant insect to me, is what it looks like.
Cynthia Graber: Uh...I don't...
Tim: It’s legs. Legs and little flippers and little creepy buggy hairy things.
Nicola Twilley: No offense, Cynthia, but you and Tim are just drunken holiday-makers. What about the scientists? Surely they could find the lobster penis if they put their minds to it?
Cynthia Graber: Well, there was a French guy who joined the search in the 1800s and he couldn’t find it. He thought maybe the lobster had a hidden telescopic penis that would just pop out from its hiding place when necessary. That wasn’t true.
Nicola Twilley: Finally, in the 1890s, a graduate student at Johns Hopkins started worrying about this problem of lobster anatomy. Frances Herrick was his name. He actually started by looking for the lobster vagina, which also no one had been able to discover before.
Cynthia Graber: Frances found two little pouches on the female lobster, like little fanny packs, and he thought—well people got it wrong because they were looking for just one penis, but actually maybe the lobster has two. And he did in fact find these two hard things that look like little legs on the males. But they didn’t have tubes for sperm.
Trevor Corson: What Herrick figured out is that those two hard things were kind of like penises in the sense that they stuck into the little fanny pack on the female and propped it open. But then what they were was actually like little guide rails or little railroad tracks. Not a penis exactly.
Nicola Twilley: These two little hard things? They’re more like mini luges. The lobster sends its sperm packets sailing down them and into the female’s waiting receptacle.
Trevor Corson: So the end of the story is that the male lobster kinda has two penises, but not really. I like to say they do because I think they deserve it.
Cynthia Graber: Two penises might make it seem like these huge belligerent males are really dominant when it comes to sex.
Trevor Corson: Should I throw in a brief description of the actual act or…
Nicola Twilley: Of course! That is what you listeners come to Gastropod for, right? The lobster sex?
Trevor Corson: They actually do have a kind of lovemaking in the missionary position, is basically what happens with lobster sex when it happens.
Cynthia Graber: That’s kind of standard, not super out there. But what leads up to it? Well, let’s just say that scientists first got that all wrong because of their own gender stereotypes.
Trevor Corson: Scientists had originally had this idea that the big strong male goes around showing off and then the pretty attractive female, like puts on perfume, and then the big strong male comes and finds the attractive female with her perfume and they hook up.
Nicola Twilley: Now in some ways, the stereotypes do hold up. There is such a thing as an alpha lobster—the biggest and the strongest.
Trevor Corson: The big male lobster reminds everybody in the neighborhood that he’s the toughest. He goes around and kind of slaps around all the other male lobsters. And then he also kind of slaps around the female lobsters a bit to remind them that he’s the toughest lobster. But he’s really just belligerent. He’s really only interested in fighting. There is not a romantic bone in this guy’s body—well, it’s an exoskeleton, crustacean, so technically, they don’t have bones. There just isn’t any interest in romance.
Cynthia Graber: So the females have to figure out what to do. They know who’s strong and who has good genes. They want those genes. But that big alpha lobster is not interested in fooling around.
Trevor Corson: So this is where it gets kind of interesting. The female lobsters kind of go and check on the male lobster when he goes back and hangs out in his apartment. Of course, he’s got the nicest apartment because he’s the biggest, meanest lobster. So he takes the best rock. And then, one by one, the female lobsters go and kind of poke their face in, and he’s just really angry and tells them to go away.
Nicola Twilley: But remember those nozzles and jets that allow lobsters to squirt information-dense urine from their faces? I mean, how could you forget?
Trevor Corson: So what scientists have been able to figure out is that the female lobsters have a kind of aphrodisiac drug that they are able to go squirt at that belligerent, angry, tough guy, male lobster to calm him down. And this is the only way they can get him interested in romance. And so it’s essentially the female lobsters who end up drugging the male lobster into submission so they can have their way with him. And not only that, but the female lobsters in the neighbourhood, they create this kind of sisterhood where they team up and take turns.
Cynthia Graber: This is quite a sisterhood. And so clearly lobsters do not have a Ross and Rachel sweetheart hand-holding love affair.
Trevor Corson: So sorry, Rachel. But actually, in that scenario, Ross would have hooked up with Rachel for two weeks and then started hooking up with other aggressive females in the building, who managed to calm him down enough.
Nicola Twilley: OK, I could definitely talk about lobster sex all day, but along with lobster eyes and noses and genitalia, there is yet another remarkable aspect of lobster anatomy—yes, I am on the lobster payroll.
Cynthia Graber: Big Lobster.
Alamgir Karim: I originally got the idea from the lobster. And I was looking at this lobster in some restaurant. And I thought, “That shell outside is so hard, yet it’s flexible. How on earth does it do that?” And it’s a really protective thing, because if you think, if I were to touch it, it’s flexible and it’s tough.
Cynthia Graber: Alamgir Karim is a scientist at the University of Houston. And after gazing at a lobster in a restaurant, he spent years trying to figure out how he can use the materials in lobster shells to recreate that hard, flexible material on demand.
Nicola Twilley: Turns out Alamgir is not the only scientist impressed by lobster shells. Audrey Moores is a chemist at McGill University in Montreal.
Audrey Moores: So when you eat the lobster at the end of the day you leave the shell behind. And about a third of this shell is composed of a material called chitin, which is a polymer, so it’s a little bit like a plastic in a way.
Cynthia Graber: Chitin is great, but it’s even better, at least for us, when scientists turn it into another material called chitosan.
Alamgir Karim: So chitin is the brittle, hard version. Chitosan is the long chain version, which is soft and flexible, easy to manipulate.
Nicola Twilley: So this lobster chitin plus some extra molecules is now flexible, easy to manipulate and still super strong. Awesome.
Alamgir Karim: So that is where the idea came about in terms of, you know, OK. This is kind of like the stuff you would want in an armour where you are wearing something. It is protective, it is hard, but it will flex with your body.
Cynthia Graber: But there’s a problem. The chitosan that scientists create by treating chitin with a chemical, it turns out that it gets too soft at high temperatures, and it doesn’t have just the right ratio of strength to flexibility.
Nicola Twilley: But Alamgir just got a big grant from the U.S. Department of Defense to make a new armored jacket prototype from lobster shells—because he thinks he’s figured out a work-around.
Alamgir Karim: How about instead of trying to solve it all in a single layer, we have a multi-layer structure where the outer layer gives the most mechanical strength, you know, in terms of impact? So, and then the inner layer could be something that can collapse and it can absorb all the energy that is required.
Nicola Twilley: Each of the layers is a slightly different ratio of chitin to chitosan, some with other molecules mixed into the matrix, and when they’re bonded together, they cover for each others’ weaknesses and make the most of each others’ strengths.
Cynthia Graber: So far it’s going pretty well. He thinks he could have flexible, strong armor for the military in only a few years.
Nicola Twilley: Each jacket uses somewhere between 10 and 20 lobster shells. Shells that would pretty much be going in the rubbish otherwise.
Cynthia Graber: And speaking of the trash, once the jacket has reached the end of its life, it’d be fully compostable.
Nicola Twilley: If his prototype jacket does work, Alamgir has bigger plans. He wants to make chitosan everything: chitosan plastic wrap or what I would call cling film, even chitosan computer frames.
Alamgir Karim: So imagine if we could make milk bottles that would be then degradable and go back to nature.
Cynthia Graber: This all sounds great, but there is one more problem with chitosan.
Audrey Moores: There’s really very, very few people who are doing this transformation, turning chitin into chitosan, and the reason for that is that this process is really dirty. It requires the use of a lot of corrosive materials, it creates a solution in water, but that is very toxic and then costs a lot of money to dispose of.
Cynthia Graber: Audrey decided to attack this problem from the chemistry side. Could she make chitosan out of chitin without using any liquid solvents that create the toxic waste?
Audrey Moores: And we tried and we tried various mechanisms for doing that.
Nicola Twilley: And she figured it out. She mixes the chitin and the other solvent chemicals together as powders rather than liquid, and lets them sort of cure in a warm humid oven. And that triggers the same reaction. The chitin becomes chitosan.
Cynthia Graber: And there’s no leftover toxic liquid waste. But in the process of solving that waste issue, Audrey says that the chitosan is even better than before. Made the old way, chitosan would dissolve in water and acids. So you couldn’t make a chitosan Coke bottle.
Audrey Moores: So now you can make a cup made of chitosan that’s going to be able to hold water. So that’s pretty cool.
Nicola Twilley: Audrey’s new and improved chitosan could replace a ton of the everyday plastics that honestly typically end up in landfills, even when you put them in the recycling bin. And she’s optimistic she could collect enough lobster shells from the big processing plants up in Canada. But that's not ready for prime time yet.
Audrey Moores: So can we make, you know, a few grams of it? We know we can do this. Can we make a few kilograms of it? We know we can do this. But can we make a few tons of it? That we don’t know.
Cynthia Graber: We’re keeping our fingers crossed! It’s pretty cool!
Nicola Twilley: Just another of the lobster’s many super powers. Yes, the American lobster may be a bully and its sexual habits are a little dubious, but, I have to say, I think it’s awesome. As well as delicious.
Cynthia Graber: I do too, and so does Audrey—and she’s also doing her part to make sure that there are plenty of shells available for her new lobster plastic.
Audrey Moores: Oh, yeah, of course. I’m a huge lobster fan. I mean, it’s one of the pleasures of living in Canada, especially in eastern Canada, is to have access to the beautiful, wonderful crustaces that are fished in in the East. So yeah, so every time I go to to Nova Scotia, or to New Brunswick, yeah, of course I eat lobster all the time. And even here, we’re buying lobster and have it at home. We just love it.
Nicola Twilley: There’s no work-home divide for Audrey these days. It’s all lobster, all the time.
Audrey Moores: It’s true. Like every time somebody sees a lobster somewhere, it’s like my son will be like, oh, Mommy, Mommy ,a lobster. So yeah. It’s becoming a little bit of a family emblem these days. Yes.
Cynthia Graber: Thanks this episode to our lobster guide, Trevor Corson, his book The Secret Life of Lobsters is genuinely as delightful and funny as Trevor is in an interview. And there’s so much in it that we didn’t get to cover! If you’re at all hungry for more lobster, do go read it.
Nicola Twilley: Thanks also to lobster expert Rick Wahle, lobster age-detective Raouf Kilada, and lobster armor fans Alamgir Karim and Audrey Moores. Obviously, we also need to thank Tim for helping you look for the lobster penis, such a tough job.
Cynthia Graber: He was up for the challenge.
Nicola Twilley: But we should also my husband Geoff who found and sent Alamgir’s work over to us.
Cynthia Graber: Thanks as usual, to Sonja Swanson for all her help on this episode, and for everything she’s doing to help keep Gastropod running.
Nicola Twilley: We have a special newsletter crammed with extras, including Trevor's thoughts on whether it's okay to boil lobsters alive. Go to gastropod.com/support to find out how to get in on that list.
Dan Pashman: That’s Cynthia Graber and Nicola Twilley, the hosts of Gastropod. It’s a podcast about food through the lens of science and history. Some of their recent episodes cover the science of the chili pepper and the history of home economics. Definitely check out Gastropod wherever you got this podcast.
Dan Pashman: Next week on the show I talk with cookbook author and food TV star, Ayesha Curry.