Orange, yellow, blue, and even ‘Halloween’: The rarest lobster colors, explained

Ever wonder why lobsters come in so many distinct colors? Here's why.

In this Thursday, Aug. 31, 2017 photo provided by the New England Aquarium, a rare yellow lobster, lower right, is displayed for photos at the aquarium in Boston with their collection of other oddly colored crustaceans. The lobster, donated by a Salem seafood company, will be put on exhibit for about a month after it undergoes quarantine. (Emily Bauernfeind/New England Aquarium via AP)
The New England Aquarium's rare collection of different colored lobsters pictured last month. –Emily Bauernfeind / New England Aquarium via AP

It may feel like a new, brightly colored lobster has been pulled off the New England coast and onto your social media feeds every other week over the last few months.

Maybe you’ve seen a rare, blue lobster before. But what about yellow? Or the ghostly, one-in-100-million white lobster caught last month in Maine?

However, according to New England Aquarium spokesman Tony LaCasse, this has actually been a “slow summer.”

“Typically, we see more reports of oddly colored lobster in the summer,” he said.

And increasingly so, as fisherman and lobster retailers become more adept at social media.

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“Outside of albinism, you don’t see as much distinct variation in color in other animals,” LaCasse said.

Anita Kim, a lobster biologist at the New England Aquarium, says that while many people think of lobsters simply as that “relatively large red animal on our dinner plate,” there’s a lot more to them upon closer inspection (and that’s not even mentioning the fact that they never stop growing or that they pee on each other out of their face).

“They are so marvelously complex,” Kim said.

According to the University of Maine’s Lobster Institute, lobsters typically exist in the wild “dark bluish green to greenish brown.” However, as the spectacularly colored outliers attest, not always. Kim says there are two main reasons some lobsters differ so starkly in color: Diet and genetics.

“A normal colored lobster has three layers of color from the top down: yellow, blue, and red,” she said. “Our eyes can’t handle the layers and so we see brown.  This is also why lobsters turn red when you cook them. The heat from the boiling water causes the proteins in the lobster to denature, or fall apart.”

According to Kim, some of the coloring has to do with an individual lobster’s uptake of a certain protein in its diet, which, when absorbed into different parts of the animal’s body, affects its color. And while lobsters may be unique in the layering of pigmentation in their shell, this quality is also seen in other crustaceans and animals.

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“Lobsters getting their shell color from a pigment is similar to the fact that flamingos are pink because of the shrimp they eat,” Kim said.

The second factor — while not fully understood, according to Kim — is the role of genetics. The Lobster Institute’s Robert Bayer recently told The Boston Globe that the “best analogy is eye color in people.” According to Kim, lobsters that are born a certain color is due to a genetic mutation in which one of the three layers of color in their shell and cell tissue shows more or less prominently.

White lobster
A white lobster was caught off Chebeague Island in Maine last month. —Maine Coast Fishermen's Association via Facebook

“A blue lobster is blue because it is showing that middle pigment-protein layer,” Kim said. “Why it’s only showing that layer is not known. It can either be transporting most or all of the pigment into that blue layer of the shell or it possibly has made an overabundance of protein in that layer and so that is the dominant color that we see.”

Conversely, a genetic orange lobster is showing more of its top yellow shell layer and red tissue layer colors.

“The middle blue layer is either not being presented or is presented so minimally that we can’t detect it,” she said.

Kim says the aquarium used to have a white lobster similar to the one caught in Maine last month, which she says may have been a genetic blue lobster that turned pale because of what it had been eating (since it turned blue-ish after it molted).

“It was absolutely fascinating,” she said. “It unfortunately died after being with us for a couple of years and we never got to see whether it would have stayed blue or if it was actually a genetically normal-colored lobster.”

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LaCasse says the downtown Boston aquarium serves as a sort of clearinghouse for many of the rare lobsters caught in the region. And given the shear volume of lobsters brought to market in the United States and Canada each season, LaCasse says one would expect around 120 blue lobsters — a one-in-2 million find, according to the Lobster Institute — to pop up each summer.

LaCasse says he feels bad sometimes turning down lobsters that are offered to the aquarium that aren’t vividly blue.

The aquarium’s collection of lobsters nearly span the color spectrum — from blues, oranges and the recent yellow, to calico and even a split-colored orange and black lobster, which the aquarium ironically acquired in 2013 shortly before Halloween from a Salem fisherman.

LaCasse marvels at how perfectly asymmetric the split-colored lobsters are.

You could be a draftsman and couldn’t be more exacting on the color line,” he said. “You just shake your head in disbelief when you see one of those splits.”

According to the Lobster Institute, split-colored lobsters, which are found to be hermaphroditic, are a one-in-50 million find. Experts say white — also known as albino or  “crystal” — lobsters are one-in-100 million.

LaCasse says he has a certain respect for any oddly colored lobster. Unlike their normally colored, camouflaged peers, these distinct animals stick out against their environment and are thus more vulnerable to predators.

“That’s a smart, savvy animal,” he said.

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