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.


10 Fascinating Facts About the Thesaurus for National Thesaurus Day

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iStock.com/LeitnerR

Writers often turn to a thesaurus to diversify their vocabulary and add nuance to their prose. But looking up synonyms and antonyms in a thesaurus can help anyone—writer or not—find the most vivid, incisive words to communicate thoughts and ideas. Since January 18 is Thesaurus Day, we’re celebrating with these 10 fascinating facts about your thesaurus.

1. Its name comes from the Greek word for treasure.

Greek lettering.
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Most logophiles consider the thesaurus to be a treasure trove of diction, but the word thesaurus really does mean "treasure." It derives from the Greek word thésauros, which means a storehouse of precious items, or a treasure.

2. You can call them thesauruses or thesauri.

Row of old books lined up.
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How do you refer to more than one octopus? People say everything from octopuses to octopi to octopodes. Similarly, many people have trouble figuring out the correct plural form of the word thesaurus. Though thesauri is technically correct—it attaches a Latin suffix to the Latin word thēsaurus—both thesauri and thesauruses are commonly used and accepted today.

3. Early thesauruses were really dictionaries.

Close-up of the term 'ideal' in a thesaurus.
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Ask a French scholar in the 16th century to see his thesaurus, and he'd gladly give you a copy of his dictionary. In the early 1530s, a French printer named Robert Estienne published Thesaurus Linguae Latinae, a comprehensive Latin dictionary listing words that appeared in Latin texts throughout an enormous span of history. And in 1572, Estienne's son Henri published Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, a dictionary of Greek words. Although the Estiennes's books were called thesauruses, they were really dictionaries comprised of alphabetical listings of words with their definitions.

4. A Greek historian wrote the first book of synonyms.

Stacks of books surrounding an open book and a pair of glasses.
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Philo of Byblos, a Greek historian and grammarian, wrote On Synonyms, a dictionary of synonyms that scholars consider to be the first ancient thesaurus. Dating to the late 1st century or early 2nd century CE, the book lists Greek words that are similar in meaning to each another. Sadly, we don’t know much more about On Synonyms because copies of the work haven’t survived over the centuries.

5. An early Sanskrit thesaurus was written in the form of a poem.

Sanskrit lettering.
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In the 4th century CE, an Indian poet and grammarian named Amara Sinha wrote The Amarakosha, a thesaurus of Sanskrit words. Rather than compile a boring list of similar words, Amara Sinha turned his thesaurus into a long poem. Divided into three sections—words relating to the divine, the earth, and everyday life—The Amarakosha contains verses so readers could memorize words easily. This thesaurus is the oldest book of its kind that still exists.

6. A British doctor wrote the first modern thesaurus.

Portrait of Peter Mark Roget.
Thomas Pettigrew, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Peter Mark Roget is the British doctor credited with authoring the first modern thesaurus. In 1805, he began compiling a list of words, arranged by their meaning and grouped according to theme. After retiring from his work as a physician in 1852, Roget published his Thesaurus of English words and phrases; so classified and arranged as to facilitate the expression of ideas and assist in literary composition. Today, Roget’s Thesaurus is still commercially successful and widely used. In fact, we celebrate Thesaurus Day on January 18 because Roget was born on this day in 1779.

7. The thesaurus has a surprising link to a mathematical tool.

Image of a vintage log log slide rule.
Joe Haupt, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

The division between "words people" and "numbers people" is deep-seated. Many mathematicians may try to steer clear of thesauruses, and bibliophiles may avoid calculators, but the thesaurus is actually linked to a mathematical tool. Around 1815, Roget invented the log-log slide rule, a ruler-like device that allows users to easily calculate the roots and exponents of numbers. So while the inventor of the thesaurus was compiling words for his tome, he was also hard at work on the log-log slide rule. A true jack-of-all-trades.

8. The Oxford English Dictionary has its own historical thesaurus.

Synonyms for
iStock

In 1965, a professor of English Language at Glasgow University suggested that scholars should create a historical thesaurus based on entries in the Oxford English Dictionary. The project was a massive undertaking, as people from multiple countries worked for 44 years to compile and classify words. Published in 2009, the Historical Thesaurus to the Oxford English Dictionary contains 800,000 words organized by theme and date. The thesaurus covers words and synonyms from Old English to the present day and lets readers discover when certain words were coined and how long they were commonly used.

9. One artist turned his love of words into a series of thesaurus paintings.

Mel Bochner,
Mel Bochner, "Crazy," 2004. Francesca Castelli, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In 2014, the Jewish Museum in New York showed a survey of conceptual artist Mel Bochner’s art. Bochner had incorporated words and synonyms in his paintings for years—which were collectively referred to as the thesaurus paintings—featuring word paintings and lists of synonyms on canvas. The brightly colored paintings feature different groups of English and Yiddish synonyms. According to Bochner, Vietnam and Iraq war veterans cried after seeing his thesaurus painting Die, which features words and phrases such as expire, perish, succumb, drop dead, croak, go belly up, pull the plug, and kick the bucket.

10. There's an urban thesaurus for all your slang synonym needs

Copy of an Urban Dictionary book.
Effie Yang, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Urban Dictionary helps people decipher the latest slang terms, but where should you go when you need a thesaurus of slang? Urban Thesaurus, of course. The site, which is not affiliated with Urban Dictionary, indexes millions of slang terms culled from slang dictionaries, then calculates usage correlations between the terms. Typing in the word money, for example, gives you an eclectic list of synonyms including scrilla, cheddar, mulah, coin, and bling.

This story originally ran in 2017.

10 Endangered Alphabets You Should See Before It's Too Late

The Glagolitic script carved into wood
The Glagolitic script carved into wood
Courtesy of Tim Brookes

The Arabic and Simplified Chinese scripts aren't in danger of going anywhere anytime soon, but the same can't be said for Balinese, Mali, Pahawh (or Pahauh) Hmong, and the other 100-some alphabets that Vermont-based writer Tim Brookes has cataloged in his online Atlas of Endangered Alphabets, which is set for a soft launch on January 17. The featured alphabets—which Brookes has loosely defined to include writing systems of all sorts—are vanishing for varied reasons, including government policies, war, persecution, cultural assimilation, and globalization.

“The world is becoming much more dependent on global communications and those global communications take place in a relatively small number of writing systems—really something between 15 and 20,” Brookes tells Mental Floss. “And because that’s the case, all the others are to some degree being eroded.”

The atlas will include a bit of background information about each alphabet as well as links to any organizations attempting to revive them. By creating a hub for these alphabets, Brookes hopes to connect people who want to preserve their language and culture, while also showing the world how beautiful and intricate some of these scripts—including the 10 below—can be.

1. Cherokee

Although the Manataka American Indian Council says an ancient Cherokee writing system may have existed at one point but was lost to history, Cherokee was more or less a spoken language up until the early 19th century. Around 1809, a Cherokee man named Sequoyah started working on an 86-character writing system known as a syllabary, in which the symbols represent syllables. Most remarkably, Sequoyah himself had never learned how to read. At the time, many Native Americans deeply distrusted writing systems, and Sequoyah was put on trial for witchcraft after tribal leaders caught wind of his new creation. However, once they realized that written Cherokee could be used to preserve their language and culture, they asked Sequoyah to start teaching the syllabary. “The Cherokee achieved 90 percent literacy more rapidly than any other people in history that we know of,” Brookes says. “[Sequoyah’s syllabary] is one of the greatest intellectual achievements of all time.”

After a period of decline in the years following the Indian Removal Act of 1830, Cherokee language education saw somewhat of a revival in the late 20th century. The predominance of English and the Latin alphabet has made these efforts an uphill battle, though. Brookes says it’s difficult to find people who can teach the script, and even among Cherokee translators, few are confident in their grasp of the writing system.

2. Inuktitut

A stop sign containing the Inuktitut script
A stop sign in Nunavut, Canada
Sébastien Lapointe, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Nine different writing systems are used among Canada’s 59,500 Inuit. Many of these are based on the Latin alphabet, but the one shown above uses syllabics that were first introduced by European missionaries in the 19th century. Since it’s difficult and costly to represent each of these writing systems in official documents, many Inuit officials write and hold meetings in English, all but ensuring the demise of their mother tongue. However, Canada’s national Inuit organization, the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, is now in the process of developing one common script for all Inuit. “Our current writing systems were introduced through the process of colonization,” the organization writes on its website. “The unified Inuktut [the collective name for Inuit languages] writing system will be the first writing system created by Inuit for Inuit in Canada.” It remains to be seen what that script will look like.

3. Glagolitic

A tablet containing the Glagolitic script
The Baška tablet, which was made around the year 1100
Neoneo13, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

It’s widely believed that Glagolitic, the oldest known Slavic script, was invented by missionaries Saint Cyril and Saint Methodius around 860 CE in an effort to translate the Gospels and convert the Slavs to Christianity. The name Glagolitic stems from the Old Church Slavonic word glagolati, meaning to speak. Some of the symbols were lifted from Greek, Armenian, and Georgian, while others were entirely new inventions. Nowadays, academics are typically the only ones who can decipher the script, but some cultural institutions have made efforts to preserve its legacy. In 2018, the National and University Library in Zagreb launched an online portal containing digitized versions of Glagolitic texts. In addition to being a source of Croatian heritage and pride, the alphabet has also become an object of tourist fascination. Visitors can view monuments containing Glagolitic symbols along the Baška Glagolitic Path on the Croatian island of Krk. And in Zagreb, the capital city, it’s not hard to find gift shops selling merchandise adorned with Glagolitic writing. However helpful this may be to the tourism sector, it's no guarantee that more Croatians will want to start learning the script.

4. Mandombe

The Mandombe script
Moyogo, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

This African script is unusual for several reasons. For one, the Mandombe alphabet reportedly came to David Wabeladio Payi—a member of the Kimbanguist church in the Democratic Republic of Congo—in a series of dreams and spiritual encounters in the late ‘70s. One day, he was looking at his wall when he noticed that the mortar between the bricks seemed to form two numbers: five and two. He believed these were divine clues, so he set out to create a series of symbols based off those shapes. Eventually, he assigned the symbols phonographic meaning and turned it into an alphabet that could be used by speakers of the Kikongo and Lingala languages. Perhaps most remarkably, the pronunciation changes depending on how the symbols are rotated. “It’s one of about three writing systems in the world where that’s true,” Brookes says. Unlike most of the other alphabets on this list, Mandombe is growing in popularity rather than declining. However, because it’s primarily being taught in Kimbanguist schools and used only for religious texts, it will be a challenge to convince the rest of the population to start using it. Elsewhere in the country, the Latin alphabet is used (French is the official language). “What it’s up against is, in essence, exactly the same forces that a declining script is up against,” Brookes says. For this reason, many new alphabets can be considered endangered.

5. Ditema tsa Dinoko

In a similar vein, Ditema tsa Dinoko is also a minority script, and it's too new to tell if it will stick around. A team of South African linguists, designers, and software programmers invented this intricate, triangular-shaped alphabet in just the last decade in hopes of forging a single script that could be used by speakers of indigenous languages in South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique. Because the symbols were inspired by artworks and beadwork designs that are typical of the region, the alphabet is also a celebration of culture. “One of the really interesting features of African alphabets is how deeply embedded they are in what we would call graphic design,” Brookes says. “Instead of imitating the shapes or structures or layout of other writing systems, such as our alphabet, they often start from a completely different point of view and draw on designs that are found in war paintings, weaving textiles, pottery, and all of those other available graphic elements.” The colors used in the alphabet aren't necessary to understand the script, but they hark back to the alphabet's artistic origins while also functioning as a kind of font. For instance, different writers may use different colors to give their text "a certain feel or emotional resonance," Brookes says.

6. Mandaic

The Mandaic script
Courtesy of Tim Brookes

This ancient, mystic script dates back to the 2nd century CE and is still being used by some Mandaeans in Iraq and Iran. According to mythology, the language itself predates humanity, and the script was historically used to create religious texts. Charles Häberl, now an associate professor of Middle Eastern languages and literatures at Rutgers University, wrote in a 2006 paper that Mandaic is “unlike any other script found in the modern Middle East." And unlike most scripts, it has changed very little over the centuries. Despite its enduring quality, many of the speakers in Iraq have fled to other countries since the U.S. invasion in 2003. As these speakers assimilate into new cultures, it becomes more challenging to maintain their linguistic traditions.

7. Lanna

The Lanna script
Courtesy of Tim Brookes

According to Brookes, the Lanna script was primarily used during the time of the Lanna Kingdom in present-day Thailand from the 13th century to the 16th century. It’s still used in some regions of northern Thailand, but faces stiff competition from the predominant Thai script. The word Lanna translates to "land of a million rice fields." The script is one of Brookes’s personal favorites as far aesthetics are concerned. “It is so extraordinarily fluid and beautiful,” he says. “They developed this script to indicate not only consonants, but then the consonants have vowel markings and other consonant markings and tonal markings both above and below the main letters, and so you have this amazingly joyous and elaborate writing system, and it’s like a pond of goldfish. Everything is just curving around and swimming in all these different directions.”

8. Dongba

The Dongba script
Courtesy of Aubrey Wang

Members of the Naxi ethnic minority in China’s Yunnan province have been using this colorful pictographic script for well over 1000 years. The pictures stand for tangible objects like mud, mountains, and high alpine meadows, as well as intangible concepts such as humanity and religion [PDF]. Historically, it was mainly used by priests to help them remember their ceremonial rites, and the word Dongba means "wise man." However, the script has undergone something of a revival in recent years, having been promoted by people working in the arts and tourism industries. It’s also taught in some elementary schools, and it remains one of the few pictographic scripts that’s still in use today. At the same time, Brookes says he's seen little evidence of efforts "to create a circumstance where the script is actually used in a functional, everyday fashion." With the predominant Chinese script looming large throughout much of the country, Dongba's days may be numbered.

9. Tibetan

A student writes the Tibetan script
China Photos/Getty Images

Some of the world’s alphabets and languages are endangered for political reasons. Tibetan is perhaps the best-known example of that. The Chinese government has cracked down on language instruction in recent years, with the aim of promoting Mandarin, the predominant language—although some have argued this policy comes at the expense of minority languages. In Tibet, many schools now conduct the bulk of their lessons in Mandarin, and Tibetan might be taught in a separate language course. Chinese officials put a Tibetan activist on trial in January 2018 for “inciting separatism”—partly because he criticized the government’s policies on Tibetan language education. He was sentenced to five years in prison. In general, “the story behind endangered alphabets is almost never a pleasant or cheerful one, so that’s the human rights side of it,” Brookes says.

10. Mongolian

The Mongolian script

Anand.orkhon, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

Some have likened the appearance of the traditional Mongolian script to a kind of vertical Arabic. The script traveled to Mongolia by way of a Turkic ethnic group called the Uighurs in the 1100s. Beginning with Genghis Khan, Mongol leaders used the script to record historic events during their reign. Later, when Mongolia became a Soviet satellite state, the country started using the Cyrillic alphabet in the 1940s, and the traditional script was largely cast aside. The traditional alphabet is still used in inner Mongolia and is returning to Mongolia, and the renaissance of Mongolian calligraphy has bolstered its usage to some degree. Nonetheless, it, too, remains endangered.

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