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Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Lobsters* (*But Were Afraid to Ask)

lobsters waiting to be banded on lobster boat

My mother loved lobster. She really, really, really loved lobster. When we went out to dinner when I was growing up, my mother would read through the entire menu and then order lobster tails. Not a whole lobster because that was “too much work.” Always and without fail, she would order lobster tails. We used to tease her and ask why she bothered to even look at the menu. She responded and said that she might want to order something else. But she never did.

So, as homage to my mother, here is my version of the secret life of lobsters.

The scientific name of the American lobster is Homarus americanus. Lobsters grow by molting. As the new shell is larger than the old shell, lobsters swell their tissues with water to fill the space. They often eat the shell that they just shed to replace the calcium they lost and help the new shell harden. It takes months for the new shell to complete the hardening process. They molt about 25 times in the first five to seven years of their life before reaching adulthood. After this period, their growth slows and males typically shed their shells once a year and females once every two years. Lobsters can grow to be more than three feet in overall body length and live to be almost 100 years old. Lobsters escape predators by scooting backwards by pushing off while curling and uncurling their tails. They are territorial and often fight one another.

Female lobsters produce eggs each summer when water temperatures reach 56 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. They mate soon after they have molted and are still in the soft-shell stage. A newly laid lobster egg is the size of the head of a pin. A one-pound female usually carries approximately 8,000 eggs while a nine-pound female may carry more than 100,000 eggs. The female carries the eggs inside her body for nine to twelve months. The eggs are then carried externally attached with a glue-like substance to the swimmerets on the underside of her tail for an additional nine to twelve months. When the eggs hatch, the female releases the larvae by fanning her swimmerets.

The newly hatched lobsters are in a larval state and float near the surface of the water for four to six weeks. They are very vulnerable to predators during this stage and not many survive. They go through three molts during the larval stage. After the fourth molt, the very young lobsters settle to the bottom and look for hiding places in rocks and seaweed and continue to grow. If they find a suitable habitat, young lobsters may remain in the same cove or bay for six years or more. From every 50,000 eggs, it is estimated that only two lobsters will survive to adulthood. In the winter, mature lobsters generally migrate out to sea where the temperature of the deeper water remains warmer than in the shallow coastal bays.

Lobsters usually move around and hunt for food at night. They are not picky eaters and eat fish, snails, crabs, clams, mussels, sea urchins, algae, and dead animals. They will sometimes be cannibals and eat other lobsters. (Oh my!)

Interesting (and random) facts about lobster anatomy:

  • Lobsters are invertebrate crustaceans with a hard outer shell and no inner skeleton. Their shells are a dark blue-green color because of many different color pigments. When cooked, all of the pigments except for red are hidden and cooked lobsters turn a bright red color.

  • They do not have a brain and have a very primitive nervous system similar to that of an insect. (Not surprisingly, lobstermen often refer to lobsters by the nickname “bugs.”)

  • Lobsters do not have any teeth in their mouths. Their “teeth” are in their stomachs. The stomach is located a short distance from the mouth and food is chewed in the stomach between three grinding surfaces, called the gastric mill, that look like the surface of a molar.

  • Their “tails” are actually their abdomens. The abdomen has six sections that allow it to bend.

  • There are five small pairs of fins called swimmerets on the underside of the abdomen. The swimmerets help lobsters move along the floor of the ocean and female lobsters also use them to move water over their eggs to provide oxygen to them.

drawing of a lobster's anatomy