The University of New England launched an ambitious research endeavor, decoding the genetic underpinnings of colored lobsters beginning in January 2024. Researchers claim that the precise genetic makeup behind the various colors of lobsters is still unknown. Thanks to local Maine lobstermen, UNE marine science professor Markus Fredrich's Ph.D., UNE alumni, and research assistant Aubrey Jane, the hope to unveil the reason behind these unique shelled creatures is more hopeful than before.

Many lobstermen up and down the coast have caught blue lobsters, which are said to be one in two million, while yellow and orange or black calico lobsters are said to be one in thirty million chance.

UNE students and Fredrich are currently developing non-invasive methods for extracting genetic samples from lobsters. Fredrich believes this may provide insight into why some lobsters change from the standard brown coloring. Many lobstermen have theories behind why they think these crustaceans morph from one color to another, but to gain better insight and figure out the why, UNE has quite a collection of subjects to study.

Commercial lobsterman Sam Martin, UNE alumni and research assistant Aubrey Jane, and UNE professor Markus Fredrich Ph.D. Photo by Carli Stewart

I connected with Professor Fredrich, Aubrey Jane, and Maine lobsterman Sam Martin to explore the project a bit more. Fredrich explained that the whole project started with a more significant grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), where UNE looked at climate change's impact on lobster larvae.

At the time, Jane was also spending summers working at Bigelow Laboratory in Boothbay, Maine, where she worked with lobsters, looking at different larvae stages. Though the initial grant wasn’t to dive into the colored lobster study, Jane came up with the idea. Bigelow was instrumental in the initial NSF grant work, but they're not involved with the current coloration project.

The team at Bigelow found it interesting to study the development of the larval exoskeleton. At the same time, the Marine Science Center at UNE has a small collection of different-colored lobsters, so the combination of the two ideas was to find the genes that cause the colorations in different stages of the lobster lifecycle.

Fig, a purple lobster at the larval stage. Photo courtesy of Markus Fredrich.

“Of course, more is better. What’s out there in literature is always a report on one or two lobsters, and we are fortunate to have many different ones and to be doing a more comparative study here.” Fredrich shared.

The team is optimistic about accessing even more colored lobsters at different stages for a broader study. Jane’s boyfriend, Sam Martin, has connected other fishermen who catch these unique creatures to the study.

One unique lobster is Peaches, a one-clawed orange lobster who popped eggs shortly after the Arthur P. Girard Marine Science Center got her. The team will be able to add a second generation of lobsters to the study, and they have already begun taking samples of the eggs. The Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR) worked closely with the team to provide them with an updated permit to keep Peaches.

“DMR has been fantastic to work with. They responded timely with updated permits so we could continue to study Peaches and her eggs,” Fredrich said.

Jane shared that the team would love to have more of all the different colors of lobsters, but they don’t want to keep them forever.

“Peaches was an exception to keeping for an extended period. The goal is to get the lobsters, take blood and tissue samples, and then release them again. The students have been involved in all parts of the project, including releasing the lobsters, so it has been a lot of fun for them.” Jane said.

Fredrich and Jane explained that the study is still in its very early stages. They continue to set up their methods and prepare to catch all the larvae to take samples. They have enjoyed working with commercial fishermen, and Martin has been a great way to build the bridge between science and the fisheries.

“We’ve worked with some fishermen from the start of the project, but having Sam connect us directly to fishermen on the boats and catching the special lobsters has been great.” Jane shared.

Jane has fallen in love with the working waterfront in Maine and wants to continue dabbling in both industry and science. Martin vouches for her hard work and eliminates any further hostility toward studies in commercial fishing. This research effort is indeed a way for UNE to connect with industry and support meaningful connections to the state’s fishing community.

There are so many factors to this study that the team looks forward to uncovering, including one of the lobsters, Banana, who has started turning blue. Previous literature on colored lobsters discusses how some factors are genetic, and some are environmental.

Jane shared, “There are just so many things that we don’t understand about the underlying mechanisms.  We know that both diet and genetics can play a role and that the normal pigment partially comes from eating primary consumers.”

Fredrich also shared how he has connected with folks in Florida who are raising stone crabs in aquaculture. They raised questions about molting and described how some of the crabs had completely different coloration based on their living substrate.

“Coloration studies that I’ve seen have involved UV exposure and different color backgrounds, but I have also seen some work done on deficiencies in the diet when the shellfish is young. It’s the genetic component we don’t understand well, and we look forward to hopefully finding some answers.” Jane shared.

Two of UNE's most unique lobsters are Fig and Currant. Fig is a one-in-a-million baby purple lobster that Jane caught, raised, and donated to the Marine Science Center. Currant is a one-in-50 million dual-colored lobster that Boothbay resident Eben Wilson caught on the F/V Lettie Elise and then donated.

“What makes this project so interesting is just how many ways this can go,” Fredrich said.

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Carli is a Content Specialist for National Fisherman. She comes from a fourth-generation fishing family off the coast of Maine. Her background consists of growing her own business within the marine community. She resides on one of the islands off the coast of Maine while also supporting the lobster community she grew up in.

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