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Odd-Colored Lobsters Decoded

By Kastalia Medrano Every lobster reference we have, from playful cartoons to sunburn allegories, leads us to believe that the clawed crustaceans are red. Not so in the case of Toby, a rare blue lobster caught in May off the Maryland coast. John Gourley, who owns the restaurant to which Toby was brought, graciously donated...

By Kastalia Medrano

Every lobster reference we have, from playful cartoons to sunburn allegories, leads us to believe that the clawed crustaceans are red.

Not so in the case of Toby, a rare blue lobster caught in May off the Maryland coast. John Gourley, who owns the restaurant to which Toby was brought, graciously donated him to the National Aquarium in Washington, D.C.

Weird & Wild spoke to lobster experts about blue lobsters and the crustacean’s panorama of color variations.

Buster Blue, a rare blue lobster, was caught in 2009. Photo by Justin Brooks

Though it seems the likes of Toby would turn up, well, once in a blue moon, it’s “unusual, but not that unusual” to find a blue lobster, said Robert C. Bayer, executive director of the Lobster Institute, an organization that works to sustain the U.S. lobster fishery. Though the odds of such an encounter run about one in two million, “we see a few every year,” Bayer said.

True red lobsters—not just ones that turn red when cooked—are a one-in-ten-million find. Yellow lobsters, 1 in 30 million. If you find an albino lobster, hang onto it, because those are one in a hundred million. Bayer can’t recall ever seeing one.

(See pictures of albino animals.)

Colorful Lobsters Explained

Genetics are mostly the cause of the odd colorations, noted National Aquarium curator Jay Bradley.

“Blue, in particular, is a genetic defect in that the lobsters are producing more of a certain protein than normal,” Bradley said.

“Combined with their normal pigmentation, it forms a blue color. But they turn red when they’re boiled, like the rest. The more orange-y ones [when they’re alive] are an expression of the lack of that protein, so they’re only showing this carotenoid pigment, and it’s bright red, like how they look when they’re boiled.”

The only lobsters that don’t turn red in the pot are albinos, sometimes referred to as “crystal” lobsters.

Just as lobsters aren’t all the same color, neither are they necessarily only one color. “Calico” lobsters, as they’ve been called, display mottled shells, usually comprising black and orange. The odds of a calico lobster is 1 in 30 million.

(See “Lobster Caught ‘Half Cooked’ in Maine.”)

Farther down the statistical rabbit hole, at 1 in 50 million, are split-colored lobsters, or those showing two colors that are distinctly separated—sometimes split down the middle, sometimes showing a more checkerboard pattern. All split-colored specimens observed by the Lobster Institute so far have also proven hermaphroditic.

Hermaphrodites aside, the color differences are only skin-deep, Bayer explained. More—or less—brightly colored lobsters don’t live longer than average, nor are there any recorded difference in size, reproduction, or general health. And despite their value as a novelty, rare-colored lobsters aren’t a target for poachers or black-market traders for precisely that reason—they’re rare. No one wastes time hunting for them.

Odd-Colored Lobsters May Help Science

But weirdly hued lobsters—blue ones in particular—can be useful for scientific purposes, he noted.

“If you breed a blue male and blue female, you get all blue offspring,” Bayer said. “So [20 years ago] we did that, and released them, and in the process studied their behavior to see if there were any obvious impediments to their survival.” There weren’t.

“The reason we’re interested in them is we use them as a marker to study their survival rates,” Bayer said, explaining that no one knows for certain just how long a lobster can live. “We released them and followed them for ten years. I’d guess they can maybe live a hundred years—there’s no way to tell how old they are. And they will reproduce as long as they’re alive.”

(Also see “Lobsters to Be Supersized by Climate Change?”)

And that reproductive cycle can last up to two years. A female, once sexually mature, will first shed her shell. She then sends a pheromone into the water that simultaneously alerts male lobsters to her presence and serves as a warning to not eat her.

That’s because lobsters are occasionally cannibalistic and will attack their own kind when their target is in the vulnerable, soft-shelled stage that follows molting, as a female must be in to conceive. Lobsters will remain hungry rather than attack a female ready to breed, however.

Once a male and female mate, according to Bayer, the female’s ovaries begin to mature. Six to nine months later, the eggs are extruded from her tail, where they remain, each no bigger than a raspberry kernel. There they remain for still another six to nine months, when they are released into the water as larvae.

“They don’t look very much like lobsters at that point,” Bayer said. “They don’t have claws, and there’s a very small survival rate. But at the end of two weeks, you have a lobster that has molted four times and is ready to settle to the bottom, ready to begin a happy life. Until, you know, we eat them.”

A large female can lay up to 80,000 eggs at a time.  So while chances are most will grow to be a nondescript sort of green, we’re never sure when the next blue—or yellow or calico or albino—lobster has been born.

See more weird stories at National Geographic News

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Meet the Author

Christine Dell'Amore
Christine Dell'Amore, environment writer/editor for National Geographic News, has reported from six continents, including Antarctica. She has also written for Smithsonian magazine and the Washington Post. Christine holds a masters degree in journalism with a specialty in environmental reporting from the University of Colorado at Boulder. Her book, South Pole, was published in 2012.