Do we have lobsters in North Carolina waters?

June 2007

At certain times of the year, spiny lobsters migrate en masse in long lines across the sea floor. (Photo by Emmett Westbrook)

At certain times of the year, spiny lobsters migrate en mass in long lines across the sea floor.

Yes, but not like the big-clawed lobsters of Maine. Ours are spiny lobsters, (Panulirus argus) a smaller, clawless, warm-water variety.

Spinys thrive in waters of the southern United States and Caribbean. Seemingly all legs and antennae, they look like something from a sci-fi thriller. Their legs are spindly compared to their body’s thick, tubular shape, and menacing, curved spines known as “horns” project over each eye, giving them a fierce appearance. Their antennae can measure the length of their body – 2 feet or more, and their spiky, tannish-brown exterior sports a fan-like tail dotted with light yellow or white spots.

These harmless crustaceans rely on their tough exterior for protection. Their best defense is a quick getaway using their large tail to swim rapidly backward. Scientists also think the loud screeching noise spinys make – by rubbing their antennae against a smooth part of their hard exterior – may help deter predators.

Spinys are nocturnal, retreating into crevices, rocks and reef areas during the day. They venture out at night to feed on snails, clams, crabs, sea urchins or carrion. They can be found in shallow water or at depths of 300 feet or more.

New studies reveal that spinys have the remarkable ability known as “magnetic map sense.” Much like sea turtles and homing pigeons, they can establish and maintain courses relative to the Earth’s magnetic field. They can retrieve positional information to determine geographic location, and maintain consistent headings while migrating underwater. This enables them to return in darkness to the same den, or home in on a specific den if placed in an unfamiliar area.

The tail of the spiny is edible, and in some areas spinys have been overharvested. They are the biggest food export of the Bahamas, and, as a result, large lobsters are scarce. Smaller specimens up to 15 inches are fairly common.