25 Delicious Facts About Lobsters

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ThinkStock

We cracked open America's favorite crustacean, Homarus americanus, to plate the delicious facts hiding inside. Bob Bayer, head of the University of Maine’s Lobster Institute, helps us out.

1. If you cut a lobster, does it not bleed? Yes, of course—but it doesn't look like you'd expect. Lobster blood is colorless until exposed to oxygen, at which point it turns blue.

2. Typically, lobsters are a mottled brown, but genetic mutations can create red, blue, calico, and even albino lobsters. Heat denatures the proteins in the lobsters’ shells, releasing astaxanthin, which turns their shells bright red when they’re cooked.

3. Every time they molt—splitting their shells along the seam in the carapace—lobsters increase 20 percent in size. Young lobsters molt several times a year, but after they hit one pound, they start molting annually. After finding a soft place to hide, “they shed every part of the hard material, including the lining of the intestine,” Bayer says. "When the lobster comes out of its old shell, it’s all wrinkly. Its new shell is softer than your skin. If you take that lobster out of water, the claws will fall off; it doesn’t have the mechanical strength to keep the claws on." Then they eat their old shells for the calcium and phosphorus.

4. Freshly molted lobsters are called shedders.

5. The warmer the water, the faster lobsters grow.

6. Lobsters have three pairs of antennae, the largest of which is used for tactile sensing. "If a lobster’s going to go into a hole, for example, it’ll wave those large antennae around, sort of feel the hole, and then determine if it can fit, and then it’ll back in and hide," Bayer says. The two smaller pairs are chemosensory, helping the lobster find its food by sensing dissolved substances in the water, "a combination of our sense of taste and smell in one function,” according to Bayer.

7. The bigger claw is called the crusher claw, and lobsters use it to break up clams, crabs, and sea urchins. The cutter claw is used for tearing. “Some good-sized lobsters can raise a pressure closing strength of 100 pounds per square inch,” Bayer says. “Most of them are less than that, but it’s still a good amount of pressure.” If a lobster loses one of its claws or walking legs, the limb will regenerate. "If you’ve got a wound around the time that lobster is molting, you sort of get mixed biochemical signals, so you might end up with a duplicate of something," Bayer says. "You might get, say, two thumbs sticking out of the same claw."

8. Lobsters walk forward, but if they need to quickly get away, they propel themselves backward by pumping their tails. Females have broader tails than males so they can hold eggs there.

9. These crustaceans can’t see clear images, but their compound eyes are sensitive to light. Severing the eyestalk—which also serves as the lobster's hormonal center—will cause it to molt. And eyes don't grow back.

10. Lobsters use the front two legs—which are studded with chemosensory hairs—to put food into their mouths. “It almost looks like a squirrel eating,” Bayer says. The food goes into the stomach, where the gastric mill—made up of three teeth-like structures—grinds it up. Next, the food travels through the tomalley—a.k.a. the green thing you scrape off your meat. It’s the lobster’s main digestive tract: a small intestine, pancreas, and liver in one—and it’s a delicacy!

11. Lobsters aren’t scavengers; in fact, they feed on a large variety of live things, including other lobsters, marine worms, clams, mussels, and crabs in addition to bait (which is most often salted herring).

12. It takes a lot of herring to catch a lobster: "It averages about a pound of herring per pound of lobster that’s caught," Bayer says. "It’s expensive. It may be more than we need. We actually had a student who looked at this, and she found that you could use less and catch the same amount of lobster. But old habits die hard."

13. Fin-like structures called swimmerets help lobsters circulate water inside their shelters; females also use them to carry eggs.

14. Lobsters pee out of their faces. The urine comes from antennal glands located near the antennae. "They're greenish brown spots," Bayer says. "They actually look like two pieces of snot—that’s the best way to describe them. You'd have to open them up to see them." Peeing at each other is part of both fighting and courtship.

15. Speaking of courtship: In lobsters, it's kind of complicated. To woo a dominant male—who will have previously spent his time beating up her and all of the other lobsters in his neighborhood—the female heads to his shelter a number of times and pees pheromone-laced urine into it, which helps him relax. Because lobsters are cannibals, the pheromone is telling him two things: “It’s time to breed" and "Don’t eat me!” 

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Eventually, when he is sufficiently wooed, she'll move into his shelter and molt, at which point he uses the first pair of swimmerets—which, in males, are hard and bone-like and called gonopods—to transfer sperm to her. She'll stay in his shelter for another 10 days or so while her new shell hardens. Then she's back to her own life, and it's time for a new female to woo the male.

16. She stores the semen in a receptacle between her walking legs for six to nine months before she extrudes eggs, which then sit on her tail for another six to nine months. "When they’re immature, they’re very dark," Bayer says. "As they’re getting ready to hatch, these larvae, you can see the eyes." 

17. A lobster that's a pound and a half might carry 8000 to 10,000 eggs, which are kept in place by glue created in her cement glands. "The bigger they are, the more eggs they have," Bayer says. "You might have 30,000 or 40,000 on a really big lobster." If you’re eating lobster and find bright red stuff, that’s unextruded eggs—also known as roe.

18. When a fisherman traps a female lobster carrying eggs, he puts a V-notch in her tail. This tells other fishermen that she's a breeding female whether she has eggs or not, and should be thrown back. "They’re protected as long as that notch is present," Bayer says. "You're protecting your breeding population. If you think about it, it’s sensible, because you’re going to have your classes that don’t settle well, that don’t have good survival, but you’ve got this huge root stock that’s out there, so that the next year it can come back."

19. "When lobsters first hatch, they float—they float for the first couple of weeks," Bayer says. Some scientists call those floaters superlobsters, because they can swim forward in the water with their claws outstretched by beating the swimmerets under their tails. After this phase, they settle on the bottom. "Those that settle to the bottom, many of them will survive," Bayer says, "and it’s a good measure of what the upcoming stock is."

20. By the way: Despite what Phoebe from Friends believed, lobsters aren't monogamous. "Sometimes they'll have multiple parentage," Bayer says.

21. Fishermen used to guess at a lobster's age based on its size. Scientists only recently discovered an accurate way to determine a lobster's age: dissecting it and counting the rings in the eyestalk and gastric mill—similar to the way we calculate a tree's age.

22. The largest lobster ever recorded was caught near Nova Scotia in 1977 and weighed 44 pounds!

23. Science has shown that lobsters can recognize each other. Researchers at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution set up an experiment where two crustaceans fought each other in a ring. Later, when they tried to have those same two lobsters fight again, the one that lost the first time recognized the winner and backed down immediately. "It wasn't just that the loser lobster had become a sissy or something," Trevor Corson, author of The Secret Life of Lobsters, told National Geographic. "When matched with a new lobster, he fought ferociously. So he was recognizing that previous lobster. They blindfolded him, and it didn't make a difference. So we get back to this pissing-in-each-other's-faces thing. [The scientists] catheterized a lobster with little tubes attached to its face and collected urine during combat. It turned out that without the urine in the water, the lobsters couldn't recognize each other." The losing lobster would recognize the winner for up to a week.

24. Can lobsters and other crustaceans feel pain? Scientists have gone back and forth on this; some recent research suggests that they probably do, while another study, published in 2005, says they don't. "There can be no absolute answer," Bayer says, though he's in the "no pain" camp. "They sense their environment, but don’t have the intellectual hardware to process pain. [If you look at] the nervous system of a lobster next to a grasshopper, and what’s notable is that the nervous system is so primitive that there isn’t really much to it. We argue that there is no brain and no ability to process pain. They do respond to their environment, and they sense that it’s not right for them. If they sense warmth or even chemicals in their environment, they’ll try to avoid them, those things that are noxious." Some suggest that the most humane way to cook a lobster is to start by putting it in fresh cold water or the freezer—both of which essentially puts it to sleep—before dropping it in the pot. (The "scream," by the way, isn't a scream at all, but steam escaping from their shells.)

25. According to Bayer, "Anything that kills insects can kill a lobster," and lobsters are extremely sensitive to insecticides, even at parts-per-billion concentration: "They’re so sensitive that, if you’ve got a room with a lobster tank, and you take an insecticide and you give it a five-second spray at the end of the room, it's likely that all those lobsters would be dead by the end of the day," he says. So we might want to think about what we're dumping into our oceans.


5 Simple Ways to Upgrade Your Green Bean Casserole

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iStock.com/bhofack2

Green bean casserole became a fixture of Thanksgiving spreads shortly after Dorcas Reilly invented the dish in 1955. The classic recipe, which includes Campbell’s condensed cream of mushroom soup and French’s French fried onions, is a sacred piece of Americana—but there's nothing stopping you from playing around with it this Thanksgiving. Just brace yourself for skeptical looks from your more traditional relatives when these variations hit the table.

1. USE HOMEMADE FRIED ONION RINGS.

Green bean casserole typically calls for crispy fried onion bits from a can—and that's fine if you're pressed for time on the big day. But if you're looking to make your casserole taste unforgettable, it's hard to beat to fresh onion rings fried at home. Homemade onion rings are more flavorful than the store-bought stuff and they provide an eye-popping topper for your dish. If you're interested in making onion rings part of your Thanksgiving menu, this recipe from delish will walk you through it.

2. ADD SOME GOUDA.

This recipe from Munchies gives the all-American green bean casserole some European class with shallots, chanterelles, and smoked gouda. Some family members may object to adding a pungent cheese to this traditional dish, but tell them to wait until after they taste it to judge.

3. LIGHTEN IT UP.

As is the case with any recipe that calls for a can of creamy condensed soup, green bean casserole is rarely described as a "light" bite. Some people like the heavy richness of the dish, but if you're looking to give diners a lighter alternative, this recipe from Food52 does the trick. Instead of cream of mushroom soup, it involves a dressing of crème fraîche, sherry vinegar, mustard, and olive oil. Hazelnuts and chives provide the crunch in place of fried onions. It may be more of a salad than a true casserole, but the spirit of the classic recipe is alive in this dish.

4. MIX IN SOME BACON.

Looking to make your green bean casserole even more indulgent this Thanksgiving? There are plenty of recipes out there that will help you do so. This "jazzed-up" version from Taste of Home includes all the conventional ingredients of a green bean casserole with some inspired additions. Crumbled bacon and water chestnuts bring the crunch, and Velveeta ups the cheesy decadence factor to an 11.

5. TURN IT INTO A TART.

If your Thanksgiving menu is looking heavy on the side dishes, consider making your green bean casserole into an appetizer. This green bean and mushroom tart from Thanksgiving & Co. has all the flavors of the traditional casserole baked on an easy-to-eat tart. A tart is also a tasty option if you're looking to repurpose your green bean casserole leftovers the day after.

9 Not-So-Pesky Facts About Termites

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iStock.com/Thithawat_s

Termites get a lot of hate for chewing through buildings, but the little creatures are far more interesting—and ecologically valuable—than we often give them credit for. Unless, of course, you’re Lisa Margonelli, the author of Underbug: An Obsessive Tale of Termites and Terminology, a new book that explores their amazing world. Here are nine facts about the highly social—and occasionally pesky—insects that we learned from the book.

1. THERE ARE FAR MORE TERMITES THAN PEOPLE ON EARTH.

Termite queens live up to 25 years, and can lay somewhere around 30,000 eggs a day. As a result, a single mound can be home to millions of individuals at a time. While the numbers vary from study to study, scientists estimate that the biomass of all the termites in the world is at least as great as that of humans.

2. MOST TERMITES AREN’T PESTS.

Of the 2800 named termite species in the world, the majority have no interest in eating your house. Only 28 species are known to chow down on buildings and infrastructure. Most are actually very beneficial to their ecosystems, clearing dead wood, aerating the soil with their intricate tunnel systems, and enhancing plant growth. Researchers have found that contrary to being pests, networks of termite mounds can help make dry environments like savannas more resilient to climate change because of the way termite mounds store nutrients and moisture, among other benefits.

3. TERMITES ARE GOOD FOR CROPS.

Termites can help make soil more fertile. In one study, researchers in Australia found that fields that were home to ants and termites produced 36 percent more wheat, without fertilizer, compared to non-termite fields. Why? Termites help fertilize the soil naturally—their poop, which they use to plaster their tunnels, is full of nitrogen. Their intricate system of underground tunnels also helps rainfall penetrate the soil more deeply, which reduces the amount of moisture that evaporates from the dirt and makes it more likely that the water can be taken up by plants.

4. TERMITES HAVE VERY SPECIFIC ROLES IN THEIR COLONY.

Each termite colony has a queen and king termite (or several), plus workers and soldiers. This caste system, controlled by pheromones produced by the reigning queen, determines not just what different termites do in the colony but how they look. Queens and kings develop wings that, when they’re sexually mature, they use to fly away from their original nest to reproduce and start their own colony. Once they land at the site of their new colony, queens and kings snap off these wings, since they’ll spend the rest of their lives underground. Queens are also physically much larger than other castes: The largest type of termite, an African species called Macrotermes bellicosus, produces queens up to 4 inches long.

Unlike their royal counterparts, most workers and soldiers don’t have either eyes or wings. Worker termites, which are responsible for foraging, building tunnels, and feeding the other castes in the nest, are significantly smaller than queens. M. bellicosus workers, for instance, measure around 0.14 inches. Soldier termites are slightly bigger than workers, with large, sharp mandibles designed to slice up ants and other enemies that might invade the nest.

5. TERMITES ARE ONE OF THE FASTEST ANIMALS IN THE WORLD.

Apologies to cheetahs, but termites hold the record for world’s fastest animal movement. Panamanian termites can clap their mandibles shut at 157 miles per hour. (Compare that to the cheetah’s run, which tops out at about 76 miles per hour.) This quick action allows tiny termite soldiers in narrow tunnels to kill invaders with a single bite.

6. TERMITES ARE SKILLED ARCHITECTS.

In Namibia, quarter-inch-long termites of the genus Macrotermes can move 364 pounds of dirt and 3300 pounds of water each year total in the course of building their 17-foot-tall mounds. Relative to their size, that’s the equivalent of humans building the 163 floors of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, no cranes required. And that’s not even the tallest termite mound around—some can be up to 30 feet high. More impressively, termites cooperate to build these structures without any sort of centralized plan. Engineers are now trying to replicate this decentralized swarm intelligence to build robots that could erect buildings in a similar fashion.

7. TERMITES BUILD THEIR OWN AIR CONDITIONING.

Some termites have developed an incredibly efficient method of climate control in the form of tall, above-ground mounds that sit above their nests. Organized around a central chimney, the structures essentially act as giant lungs, "breathing" air in and out as the temperature outside changes in relation to the temperature inside. Thanks to these convection cycles, termites keep underground temperatures in their nest between roughly 84°F and 90°F.

8. TERMITES ARE FARMERS.

Humans aren’t the only ones cultivating crops. Termites farm, too. They’ve been doing it for more than 25 million years, compared to humans’ 23,000 years. Some species of termite have evolved a symbiotic relationship with Termitomyces fungi, growing fungus in underground gardens for food. When they fly off to create a new colony, termite queens bring along fungus spores from their parent colony to seed the garden that will feed their new nest. Foraging termite workers go out and eat plant material that they can’t fully digest on their own, then deposit their feces on the fungus for it to feed on. They can then eat the fungus. They may also be able to eat some of the plant material after the fungus has sufficiently broken it down. The mutually beneficial relationship has led some scientists to suggest that the fungus, which is much larger in both size and energy production than the termites, could in fact be the one in control of the relationship, potentially releasing chemical pheromones that lead the termites to build the mound they live in together.

9. TERMITES ARE MICROBIAL GOLD MINES.

As scientists begin to understand the huge role that micobiomes play in both the human body and the rest of the world, termites provide a fascinating case study. About 90 percent of the organisms in termite guts aren’t found anywhere else on Earth. In their hindgut alone, they host as many as 1400 species of bacteria. These microbes are so efficient at converting the cellulose-rich wood and dead grass that termites eat into energy, scientists want to harness them to make biofuel from plants.

Want to learn more about termites? Get yourself a copy of Underbug on Amazon for $18.

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