Last week, two different orange lobsters were saved from a fate of being turned into a lobster roll when they were fished out of their tanks and donated to aquariums.
First, on July 11, an orange lobster was found at a Market 32 grocery store in Rotterdam, NY, who will now call the Via Aquarium in Rotterdam its new home. Then, on July 12, Red Lobster announced its employees had saved an orange lobster that, as The Takeout reported last week, was given the name Cheddar. Cheddar now resides at Ripley’s Aquarium of Myrtle Beach.
If they hadn’t happened so close to one another, I might have just smiled at these stories and kept moving. But right as the Market 32 story was heating up, the Red Lobster one started simmering on my social media feeds. And I kept seeing the same numbers: orange lobsters are one in 30 million. But it sure seems pretty weird that a one in 30 million thing would happen twice in one week, right?
The Takeout has called the rarity of these lobsters into question before, but these dueling orange lobsters made my curiosity hit a boiling point. So I reached out to an expert to find out more.
Bill Murphy, New England Aquarium senior aquarist, is an octopus and lobster expert. He told me two things right at the top of our conversation that are basically a record scratch for all the stories we read about one-in-30-million lobsters last week.
First: there’s been a shift in the reported rarities of orange lobsters, and their rarity was downgraded. While many are still citing them as a one in 30 million lobster, Murphy said he looked into it further and the oranges are now being categorized by some as a one in 10 million lobster, not one in 30. Other categories, such as blue (one in two million), yellows and calico (one in 30 million), and half and half (one in 50) are the same as they were. There’s also such thing as a white lobster, which is one in a 100 million and is unchanged.
But is any of that really even based in anything? Here’s the other thing Murphy told me that feels like a big ol’ record scratch: “I don’t know if there’s real science to this,” he said. And he’s a scientist. “I think people are just estimating and changing the rarity.”
Sorry to keep bursting rare colorful lobster bubbles, but it’s also possible for a lobster’s coloring to be a temporary, fleeting condition. Murphy said the coloring of so-called rare lobsters can be caused by two different things: genetics and food.
The genetic route is permanent. It causes a lobster’s shell to form differently than it’s supposed to. A lobster shell has three layers. Typically, those layers are bonded by proteins. The rusty, brown color we’re used to seeing on lobsters is those proteins coming together. If that bonding doesn’t happen correctly, one color might not be present and another might show through more prominently. Hence the shell can take on another color. Lobsters molt as they grow, and if their coloring is related to genetics it’ll stay that color no matter how many times they molt.
The other way a lobster’s color can be affected is what it eats—and that can change. Murphy said if a lobster is fed foods with different proteins, it can actually change the color of their shell. Those one in a 100 million white lobsters? Murphy and his researchers used to create them at the aquarium by altering the food that was given to lobsters.
“Our lobster research team used to feed them homemade food that was missing proteins for color, so the lobsters we had were actually white,” said Murphy. The researchers didn’t do this to create rare lobsters; removing the lobsters’ natural pigmentation made it easier for researchers to spot shell disease. “When the project was done, they’d have wild shrimp and fish again, and over time they’d molt and get their normal color back.”
So, I asked Murphy: is it possible that a lobster could just be eating proteins that turned it orange, and then it would be donated to an aquarium, and, after being there a while and eating normal stuff, would turn the color of a normal lobster? Yes, though it’s never happened to him personally. He said there’s no way to tell by looking at a lobster whether its rare coloring is due to genetics or food, so when a new rare lobster comes in, the only thing to do is wait. “We get ‘em in, we keep ‘em, and we see what happens.”
As for what’s so special about odd-colored lobsters, Murphy said other than their color, not much. Inside, they’re the same lobster as their rust-colored counterparts, and the behave just like normal lobsters, which includes peeing from their face. That fact has nothing to do with rarity, but I’m including it anyway because, as Murphy said, “Everyone likes a good pee story.”
Murphy said there’s no real rule governing whether or not rare lobsters could be eaten. “People can eat blue lobsters, if they want to have that rare opportunity to eat something that’s one in two million,” said Murphy. Rare lobsters being saved is more ceremonial and happens because of an unspoken thing among those who deal with lobsters: you save the special ones.
“People who find one find it really amazing and want to tell people about it and show people,” he said. “I have 12 lobsters under my care right now, all different colors, all donated by local fisherman or grocery stores. People get it and think it’s amazing and want to share it with the world.”
Do they taste the same as normal lobsters? Murphy said as far as he knows, they would. Though, being that he works with lobsters all day, he feels a little funny about eating them. Sometimes he’ll have lobster mac and cheese, he said, but seeing a full one on a plate gives him the creeps.
“To see one on the plate…” he trails off, like he isn’t even sure how to put it. “I feel like they look at me weird when I come back to work. Like I have a guilty look about me.”