Is there a 400 pound lobster at the bottom of the ocean?
Lobsters are odd creatures. Despite their strange, even grotesque appearance and their nickname as the "cockroaches of the sea," lobsters are a tasty delicacy enjoyed by humans around the world. But lobsters are also quite sophisticated critters. A lobster's two claws can come in several different forms (crusher and cutter, two crushers or two cutters). It has four spindly antennae and sensing hairs that allow it to smell amino acid in its prey. And that prey could be a lot of things: lobsters eat up to 100 types of animals and, occasionally, plants. They're even known to munch on one of their vulnerable lobster brethren, though that's more common in captivity (it's also why captive lobsters have rubber bands on their claws). Lobsters sometimes bury their food and eat it over several days. They use teeth located in their stomachs, eat their molted shells (full of calcium) and can shed appendages if attacked, wounded or surprised, only to regenerate them later. Finally, lobsters live in a hierarchy and it's the females who do the courting.
But there's one lobster fact that trumps them all: lobsters show no apparent signs of aging. They don't slow down or become weaker or more susceptible to disease. They don't get infertile -- older lobsters are actually more fertile than younger ones. Most lobsters seem to die because of something inflicted upon them and not because a body part failed or broke down. They're such hardy creatures that scientists aren't even sure how old lobsters can get. Add in that lobsters grow throughout their lives, and one has to ask: Is it possible that a lobster born before Napoleon and as heavy as an NFL lineman is chowing down on the sea floor?
Since lobsters never stop growing, lobster age is generally determined by size, though they can grow at different rates depending on the environment. A one-pound lobster (the minimum size that can be eaten legally) is usually 5 to 7 years old, but lobsters raised in 70-degree water have reached two pounds in less than two years. The largest lobster on record weighed about 44 pounds. Presumably, the larger lobsters get, the more competition they face for food resources and the more attention they'll attract from predators. That could make life difficult for a mega-lobster.
Professor Jelle Atema of Boston University, who has studied lobsters for decades, wants to test the animal's limits. Right now, he has a 15-pound lobster living in a cage, free from predators and pathogens. Even in these idyllic conditions, it will be years before Professor Atema's lobster approaches any records.
We may have to check in with Professor Atema, or his successor, in a few decades to see how the monster lobster measures up, but in the meantime, let's consider why lobsters live so long and get so big, and what this means for other animals, including humans.