A Lobster's life
A New England bestseller unveils the mysteries of America's favorite crustacean
Author Trevor Corson spent two years as a sternman off Little Cranberry Island, Maine, before writing The Secret Life of Lobsters (HarperCollins 2004). Excerpts from his talk with U.S. News:
Why a book on lobsters?
Lobstermen are the last rugged individuals, the cowboys of the East. And the lobster has this interesting duality as food. We consume it as a luxury, but it is also an incredibly primal meal, the last animal we encounter face to face on our plates.
Are lobsters aggressive?
We think of lobsters as solitary beings, but they are extremely social. They also hate each other. They are always kicking each other out of the house, fighting over food. They literally get into pissing contests. Their bladders are in their heads, so they squirt each other in the face with urine.
Lovely. Let's talk about lobster sex.
The female sprays urine into the male's apartment, basically drugging him into submission. Then she moves in with him and gets PMS--premolting syndrome. She gets irritable, shoves a lot of gravel around the place. He is understanding and tender; he waits until she molts, until her legs can stand, then he turns her on her back and mounts her. The female has a seminal receptacle, a kind of fanny pack. The male guides his swimmerets down into the pouch. Then he rolls some sperm packets into a plug for her seminal receptacle so no other males can get there.
Is molting as violent as it sounds?
Yes. The lobster's exoskeleton includes the teeth inside its stomach that grind food. The lobster has to rip that out before it's free of its shell. The hardest part is when the lobster pulls its claw muscles out through its narrow wrists. Before molting, it has to lose weight or risk getting stuck in its old clothes. Sometimes it doesn't survive.
What's a "superlobster"?
This is a unique stage in the life cycle. These kidney-bean-size larvae float around, and right before they become grown-up lobsters they have a 10-day identity crisis. They look like lobsters, but they swim like fish. It's the only time in their lives that they swim forward. And their sole mission at this time is to find a hiding place. They zoom around like torpedoes, then park it under some rocks for the next two to four years.
Could you share some insights from the amazing lobster trap video?
Researchers outfitted a baited trap with a camera and monitored it for 24 hours. The lobsters went into the trap, and more than half nibbled at the bait. But then--and this was the big surprise--94 percent of them walked right out. In one 12-hour period, lobsters made over 3,000 approaches to the trap, but of those, only 45 entered, and only five were trapped. Three of them were under size. So out of more than 3,000 approaches, they had only two salable lobsters! The lobster trap, it turns out, is a pretty inefficient tool.
Do lobsters hurt when you boil them?
The lobster's nervous system is pretty well studied, but no one has been able to identify anything that resembles a pain receptor. We can't say with confidence that they feel pain. Their nervous systems are equivalent to [that of] a housefly or a mosquito.
Is there a more humane way to kill a lobster?
You can hypnotize it first by putting it upright on its nose, then rubbing its carapace. But some researchers found that actually prolongs death. The best thing is to plunge a big kitchen knife in its head. You can also put the lobster in the freezer for a few minutes before you cook it. That will slow down its metabolism so it passes into the next life more painlessly.
Should you eat the green stuff?
The lobster's tomalley is a combined liver and pancreas. Lobster is very healthful food; it's not affected by water-borne toxins because the tomalley acts as a filter. That's great for the lobster, but it means you should probably pass on the tomalley.
With Trevor Corson
This story appears in the August 16, 2004 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.