The Long And Happy Lives Of Lobsters

As best scientists can tell, lobsters age so gracefully they show no measurable signs of aging: no loss of appetite, no change in metabolism, no loss of reproductive urge or ability, no decline in strength or health. Lobsters, when they die, seem to die from external causes.

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ALISON STEWART, host:

So if a lobster never meets the fate of the lemon wedge and parsley, it could live a long life - a really long life. Lobsters are basically eating, molting, growing machines as NPR's Robert Krulwich found out.

ROBERT KRULWICH: In his laboratory at Boston University, Professor Jelle Atema has his own lobster.

Professor JELLE ATEMA (Biology, Boston University): That's a sizable lobster.

KRULWICH: Which means it's old. Because with lobsters, the bigger you are, the older you are. That's how you age a lobster, by size.

Prof. ATEMA: That's right. Yeah.

KRULWICH: And yet as big as it is?

Prof. ATEMA: Fifteen-pound lobster...

KRULWICH: ...is big, but nobody knows how big a lobster could get. The biggest one ever seen: 40-plus pounds. But there could be much, much bigger lobster somewhere deep in the ocean, because it appears, says Professor Atema, that older lobsters wear out very slowly, like his lobster.

Prof. ATEMA: There's absolutely no indication that this lobster is showing signs of old age.

KRULWICH: In fact, lobsters in general show no discernable signs of aging. They don't lose appetite, sex drive, energy, no change in metabolism.

Prof. ATEMA: Something we could all be jealous of.

KRULWICH: Right. So if these creatures do get older and they don't get sicker or weaker - at least not in anyway we can measure - maybe there's a 100-pound, 200-pound lobster down there. Of course, we don't know what it's like to be an old lobster because lobsters can't talk about aging. But I did meet a lobster who sings about aging.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. JOSH KURZ (Voice talent): (As Leroy) My fellow crustaceans. I will now sing a song not about growing old but about growing big.

Unidentified Man #1: Do we even have vocal chords.

Unidentified Woman: Quiet.

KRULWICH: Well, if he has vocal chords, this lobster, who, by the way, calls himself Leroy the Uninterrupted Lobster - because he just keeps going and going and going - he tells his fellow lobsters that the key to longevity, at least for a lobster, is to get lucky.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. KURZ: (As Leroy) (Singing) Now, listen. I've never had a parasite or suffered from diseases. I've outlived my brothers, nephews and my nieces' nieces. While they were caught in waterline and chopped up into bits, time and again I have escaped the death we call the bisque.

KRULWICH: The bisque.

Prof. ATEMA: Yeah.

KRULWICH: Don't want to be a bisque.

Prof. ATEMA: I don't think so. Not if you're (unintelligible)…

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. KURZ: (As Leroy) (Singing) I dodged the fatal blows of pounding, waves and craggy coastline. A tsunami has not got me in all of my long lifetime. Oceanic accidents occur but not to me. I'm just a growing lobster growing old naturally.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Naturally. Come on, Leroy, spill it. How did you avoid the skillet? We need to know so we can grow like you. Leroy the Uninterrupted Lobster. Yeah. It's Leroy.

Prof. ATEMA: Yeah. That's nice. I like that.

KRULWICH: Well, could Leroy then live, theoretically, for - I mean, he doesn't - if he doesn't starve or get parasites, if he stays lucky, is it theoretically possible there are lobsters somewhere that could be really, really huge?

Prof. ATEMA: Yeah. I mean, theoretically, yes. I would say, if there is no further - no insults to the system that shutdown the basic metabolism, then, yes, I would imagine they could continue to live.

KRULWICH: And just get bigger and bigger and bigger.

Prof. ATEMA: Yes.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Tell us how you did it. If it is a truck, let's get it. We want to know so we can be like Leroy, Leroy the Uninterrupted Lobster, yeah.

KRULWICH: So then, as far as scientists know, in the oldest lobsters that you guys have seen, when you look at their - I don't know whether lobsters have hearts or whether they have circulation.

Prof. ATEMA: Yes, they do.

KRULWICH: Oh, they do. So can you - do you feel them getting kind of old and cranky when they're older or you cannot tell?

Prof. ATEMA: There is no notice, no evidence for that.

KRULWICH: And you say that the older female lobsters, they have more babies than the younger lobster ladies.

Prof. ATEMA: Very much so. Very much so.

KRULWICH: And your old lobster in your lab, he still fights you and bites you like a young…

Prof. ATEMA: A mean, old, son of a bitch in my tank who is perfectly happy being just that.

KRULWICH: So if this mean old - whatever he is - if he stays lucky, scientists have no idea how big lobsters could get. Right? You don't…

Prof. ATEMA: That's right. Yeah. So if they live a very good life, with wonderful, plentiful food, as described in the song…

KRULWICH: Then he can eat, eat, eat…

Prof. ATEMA: Molt - the phrase is…

Mr. KURZ: (As Leroy) Eat, eat, eat. Molt, expand, repeat.

Unidentified Group: Eat, eat, eat.

Mr. KURZ: (As Leroy) Yes.

Unidentified Group: Mold, expand, repeat.

Mr. KURZ: (As Leroy) Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. ATEMA: Excellent. That's right. Exactly.

KRULWICH: All they have to do is keep eating and molting so they could build a bigger shell, and then eating again and then molting again. And if you ask them what's your secret, big lobster? Actually, let's hear it from Leroy.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. KURZ: (As Leroy) Well, it's simple really.

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Leroy, Leroy, Leroy, Leroy lobster.

Unidentified Man #2: Leroy.

Mr. KURZ: (As Leroy) I'm trying to explain.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Leroy, Leroy, Leroy the uninterrupted lobsters. Lobster, lobster, lobster, lobster.

Mr. KURZ: (As Leroy) (Singing) Quiet. Here's what you do. Find a cave with lots of krill and eat and eat and eat.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) And eat.

Mr. KURZ: (As Leroy) (Singing) And when you're safe and ready, you expand, molt and repeat.

Unidentified Group: Repeat.

Mr. KURZ: (As Leroy) (Singing) Then two more things do keep in mind and then you'll never age.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) One.

Mr. KURZ: (As Leroy) (Singing) Geographic isolation.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Two.

Mr. KURZ: (As Leroy) (Singing) Always avoid the cage.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Avoid the cage.

Mr. KURZ: (As Leroy) Yes. You've got the first part…

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Eat, eat, eat, molt, expand, repeat.

Mr. KURZ: (As Leroy) …and now the second part.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Avoid the cage.

Unidentified Man #3: Avoid the cage?

Mr. KURZ: (As Leroy) Yes.

Unidentified Man #3: Isn't there food in the cages?

Mr. KURZ: (As Leroy) Yes.

Unidentified Man #3: How do we eat if we can't get to the food in the cages?

Mr. KURZ: (As Leroy) The fisherman that own the cages eat you for food, with butter.

Unidentified Man #3: I don't get it.

KRULWICH: Some lobsters are little in the slow side. But I would say, as any insurance company would tell you, that the reason lobsters do not go on forever is if you wait long enough, something bad will happen to you. Bad things do happen.

Prof. ATEMA: They do happen in real world.

KRULWICH: You mean, they do have pollution, they do have acid rain.

Prof. ATEMA: Exactly. There are certain things that happen regardless, so there are seals around who could tackle a pretty large lobster.

KRULWICH: But if the lobster in your lab or some really lucky lobster down in an ocean paradise, if they can keep eating and molting and expanding and repeating then we know - who knows, right?

Prof. ATEMA: Then, that's it. Then we get the lobster that we're all dreaming of. Or maybe in our nightmares, though.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KRULWICH: With Josh Kurz, as the lobster, Shane Winter is our composer. I'm Robert Krulwich in New York.

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