Lobsters like their foreplay.
Lucky for the females, 25 million years have provided ample time to refine their skills as apothecaries. Arriving at the entrance of an aggressive male’s shelter, all a female lobster needs to do is spritz him with some of her pee, a little each day over several days, and he will be putty in her claws.
The ability to shoot pee forward—something male and female lobsters both put to good use—requires some unique engineering (the mammalian penis is another example). For most animals, the outgoing waste ducts evolved to point away from the head, for obvious reasons. In lobsters, however, the bladder sits below the brain, with two reservoirs storing copious amounts of urine located just under their eyestalks. These connect to two nozzles through which both males and females can squirt pee. This powerful concoction then can be swept forward via the strong current created by the lobster’s breathing. This technique allows their pee to shoot straight out in front of them—up to seven body lengths away. That’s the equivalent of a teenager being able to pee from the back of a 40-foot school bus and hit the front windshield.
The female’s strategy is to be coy and quick. She makes daily and brief visits to her heartthrob’s den, flicking her antennules inside to smell him out and then spritzing him quickly in the face with her own pee (those front-facing nozzles come in handy) before getting the hell out of there. At first, each time the female returns, the male may lunge at her, even land a good swat or two. But eventually, her love potion begins to take hold.
The male starts to lets loose his own stream of urine, furiously fanning the fin-like appendages called swimmerettes located under a lobster’s tail. This action draws her scent inward while flushing a mix of his and her urine out behind him. As most lobster shelters come with a back door for quick escapes, the mixed aroma of the his-and-her lobster pee wafts outward, broadcasting the lovers’ intentions widely—lobsters may do it in dens, but they are far from discreet.
Eventually, the male calms down enough for the female to make her move and enter his den. She’ll stay part time at first and only allow him to get to first or second base: there’s lots of heavy petting with antennae and jointed limbs going on, but that’s about it. Diane Cowan, senior scientist at The Lobster Conservancy and a former student of Atema’s, explains that for females, this part-time moving-in together is a test. The female learns whether the male really controls the shelter or if another male can come kick him out. More than anything, a female lobster needs to know her partner can offer her total protection when it comes time to mate. For the male, it’s a chance for him to learn if she is really ripe and ready—something he can likely smell and taste. As lobsters have the equivalent of taste buds on their legs, the constant touching between two courting lobsters is really more of a mutual tasting—they are licking each other with their feet. It’s kinky stuff.
Like all arthropods, lobsters have their skeleton on the outside of their bodies. This means as they grow, they have to molt, shedding their old shell for newer, bigger ones to accommodate their progressively larger body.
Although a female can mate between molts, mating just after molting is the preferred time. Here’s why: when a female molts out of her too-tight bodice, she also sheds her personal sperm bank, a small receptacle located on the underside of her tail. This is where male lobsters deposit their sperm packs, allowing the female to draw down on the supply as her eggs develop and become ready for release. Any leftover sperm from past mating events are cast off along with the old pouch; a new, empty receptacle emerges with the new shell.
In other words, female lobsters can lose and regain their virginity. For a male, mating with a freshly molted female offers the opportunity to fill that empty sperm pouch with stores of his—and only his—sperm.
For a female, it means having the chance to fill up her new tank right away, allowing her to fertilize and brood a full batch (or two) of eggs before the next molt cycle—without having to mate again. There is only one problem: a just-molted female lobster is at her most vulnerable.
As if tossing off a suit of armor in exchange for a shimmery silk robe, a female lobster emerges from a molt delicately attired—and unable to stand. Her soft new shell will take at least 30 minutes to harden enough for her legs to support her own weight; it will be several days before it serves as effective body armor again. To mate at this stage a female lobster is at the mercy of the male—a large, strong, extremely aggressive, giant-clawed individual.
That’s where her love potion comes into such great effect. The scent of a pre-molt female is the ultimate aphrodisiac for a male. Once the male has melted into a more hospitable nature and the female determines he does indeed lord over this shelter, she’ll move in full time.
For the next several days, the two will snuggle up in the same shelter, leaving to hunt and go about their lobster business, but returning to the same “home.” Then the time comes for the final act, and it’s now, more than ever, that the female must ensure the male stays rather subdued.
For nearly the entire time that she lives with the male, the female is at his side or behind him. But now, in these final moments, she circles around to face him, eyestalks to eyestalks. He spreads his claws wider and down, almost as if bowing before her.
Standing before the male, the female solemnly lifts her claw and taps him on the shoulder, then repeats the movement on the opposite shoulder.
It’s a signal that seems to convey a message: Don’t leave me now. Standing face to face, the two also partake in a massive, mutual golden shower. She then walks to the back of the shelter and strips.
It may take up to an hour or more for her to molt, but exactly 30 minutes after she kicks off the final bit of shell, it’s time to get down to business. In lobsters, the actual act of copulation is a surprisingly romantic—albeit swift—affair. Under her spell, the former tyrant of a male is transformed into a gentle lover. Immediately after her molt he stands guard over her soft body, resting on closed claws and may even lightly stroke her with his antennae. At the appointed time, the male circles behind her, assuming a doggy-style mount. But then, in what may be the most tender act of lovemaking in the invertebrate kingdom, he lifts her gently off the seafloor and cradles her in his small walking legs.
He braces himself, with big front claws and tail pressing into the sand, and gently turns her onto her back, pulling her up toward him. She assists by stretching out her tail to lay as flat as possible. Belly to belly, they then fan their swimmerettes vigorously as he inserts the first pair of modified swimmerettes, called gonopods, into her sperm receptacle. Each gonopod is a half tube that he squeezes together to form a hollow rod through which the spermatophore is passed. She hangs there, in the hammock of his arms—er, legs—as he completes several thrusting motions. There is more mutual fanning and urinating, and then he gently rolls her back over and sets her down. Exhausted, she returns to the back of the shelter. A few days later she’ll move out, and another female will move in.
Excerpted from Sex in the Sea: Our Intimate Connection with Kinky Crustaceans, Sex-Changing Fish, Romantic Lobsters and Other Salty Erotica of the Deep. 2016 Marah J. Hardt. Reprinted with permission from St. Martin’s Press.
GIF by Bobby Finger, source image via Shutterstock.