Do Lobsters Really Mate for Life?

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We already learned over the summer that watching Friends is not the best way to learn about wildlife or first aid. Recently, in one of those instances where I was unable to wrest control of the remote from my girlfriend, I caught another animal myth.

“Come on, you guys,” Phoebe says. “It’s a known fact that lobsters fall in love and mate for life. You know what? You can actually see old lobster couples walkin' around their tank, you know, holding claws.”

While there are plenty of animals that practice long-term monogamy, lobsters are not among them. (Sorry, Phoebe.) Lobsters actually mate by a weird system of “serial monogamy.” It’s not exactly a one-night stand, but it's certainly not mating for life. Instead, a bunch of females take turns with a locale’s dominant male, each having a fling that lasts a week or two before moving on and, if they’re not happy with the amount of genetic material he’s provided, seeking a little extra action.

It works like this: A female lobster who’s ready to mate (which they can only do right after they’ve molted) hangs out near the den of the local dominant male and fans her pheromone-laced urine into his home. This relaxes the male, making him less aggressive and more receptive to mating. There’s then a brief courtship and the male allows the female into his den.

Anywhere from a few hours to a few days later, the female slips into something a little more comfortable and sheds her exoskeleton (shacking up the with neighborhood tough guy guarantees protection during this vulnerable time). The pair mates, and the male deposits his sperm in the female. Once her new shell has hardened a week or two later, she takes off, and another female can have her turn. Often, the females in an area will stagger the timing of their molts to make their reproductive conga line more efficient. As soon as one female is done with the stud, the next one is already waiting to pee on his doorstep.

Sometimes, the male doesn’t provide enough sperm to ensure full fertilization of all of a female’s eggs. In these cases, she’ll hit the bricks before her new shell finishes forming and mate with another male or males (usually just one or two, but as many as 10 have been reported) until she collects enough sperm.

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January 2, 2013 - 4:30am
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