Natural Attraction

In Lobster Courtship, Traits Like Humans

People who study animal behavior try not to describe their research sub­jects in human terms, but that is hard to avoid when it comes to lobsters.

When researchers describe lobster courtship, they tell a tale of gold dig­gers, bickering spouses and devoted lovers — devoted, that Is, until they part without a backward glance. The female lobster initiates mating by seeking out the male lobster with the most luxurious home, which for her means the largest or most secure burrow, usually on a rocky patch of ocean bottom. She may Lobster Photohang around its entrance for days, enticing him with her intoxicating scent — pheromones in her urine, according to Jelle Atema, a biologist with the Boston University Marine Program, who studies lobsters in his laboratory at the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Mass.
Eventually, the smitten male ad­mits her. Their foreplay is elaborate, beginning with a mock boxing match and ending with the male stroking the female — “tenderly,” people who have seen it say. The female sheds her shell and as soon as she is strong enough to stand again the male turns her on her back and they mate, like missionaries, as Trevor Corson writes in his book, “The Secret Life of Lobsters” (Harper Collins, 2004). Except that the male lobster delivers his sperm through two swimmer­ets, which function as penises, not one.

The newly molted female will stay in the male’s shelter for a few days or more, until her new shell hardens. By then, it seems, the thrill is over. She has what she wants, a plug of sperm in a tiny pouch that Mr. Corson likens to a fanny pack. And so she’s gone.

But the reproductive story is just be­ginning. After a few more weeks, she will release her eggs — as many as 100,000 for older females — and they will be fertilized as they pass by the sperm in her pouch. But she will keep them attached to her tail until she is ready to send them off into the ocean.

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