sMall, bluish gray and speckled, marbled lobster would be easy to overlook. Except for the fact that he’s likely to come to a pond or river near you soon – if he isn’t already. The all-female freshwater crustacean has become the focus of scientists’ attention in recent years, due to its unique ability among the decapods – the family that includes shrimp, crabs and lobsters – to clone itself and adapt quickly to new environments, as well as the fact that it has spread exponentially.
The marbled lobster was first identified in 1995, when a biology student bought a bag of lobster—sold for him as “Texas lobster”—from American traders at a pet fair in Frankfurt. Having become a burden to its new owner due to its inexplicably rapid rate of reproduction, he distributed it to friends who in turn threw it into rivers, lakes and latrines, where it quickly spread throughout Germany, and much of Europe and Europe. The most prolific, the island of Madagascar, is home to unique but highly sensitive freshwater ecosystems.
When Frank Liko, professor of epidemiology at the German Center for Cancer Research (DKFZ), first encountered the creatures, which are referred to as marble crabHe was amazed at its ability to reproduce offspring from a single cell, like cancer tumors, and saw it as an ideal model for research.
“All marbled lobsters share the same genome,” he says on a video call from his office in Heidelberg. “But it also adapts to different different environments, and it does so in a hurry, which makes it scientifically remarkable and similar to a tumor, which also adapts to its environment.”
Laiko led an ambitious genome study that established the extraordinary fact that all marbled lobsters originated from a single primal female. They reproduce asexually through parthenogenesis. In 2015, he gave all kinds of female crustaceans Procambarus virginalis.
In the course of his research, Liko remembers driving to a lake about 15 minutes from his lab with his students. Wearing head torches, wading and ankle-deep in the water, “We waited until it got dark, and then suddenly they showed up in hundreds and thousands,” he says. “With a hand net, we grabbed them from behind and put them in buckets. It was very exciting. Shortly thereafter, we started experimenting with eating them and found them to be very tasty.”
“The more we eat, the better.”
In Germany, where marbled crayfish invaded lakes and rivers, the authorities adopted a tough approach to it.
Klaus Heidi, a retired bank clerk turned hobby fisherman, was commissioned last year by the Berlin Senate’s environmental department to set up lobster traps, which were found in two lakes on Berlin’s western fringes. Not only are the risk of killing lobsters at risk for native species, they “can also carry what’s called lobster plague,” he says, referring to a fungal disease that more or less wiped out what was a very successful European market for lobsters 150 years ago.
Hidde was first hired by the administration four years ago to catch armies of red swamp crawfish that had erupted from ponds in gardens, including central Tiergarten, after heavy rain, and were found submerged through the Brandenburg Gate. “In just one year, I caught 42,000 of them. I was seen as a bit of a savior, even if I say so myself.” He could get 13 euros per kilogram of swamp crawfish, and he received an additional 7 euros from the Senate. Berlin restaurants captured the crustaceans, and presented them with the novel “Berlin Crabs”.
Hidde earns less than marbled lobster because he believes officials are “concerned about creating demand” for the clones, which could boost their breeding and exacerbate the problem. “I might give up, unless they are willing to make it worth my time,” he says, acknowledging that he has not yet developed a taste for meat personally. “I’d rather eat shrimp [pawns] When I go on vacation to Spain.”
Hopefully Lukas Bosch, co-founder of Holycrab! , a biodiversity startup, has been able to entice the nutritional value of marbled lobsters to Germans looking for sustainable alternatives to intensively farmed meat. The company is turning invasive species — from raccoons, Egyptian geese and wild boar to other lobsters, such as Chinese mitten crabs — into delicacies, collaborating with Berlin’s top chefs to appeal to the environmental sensibilities of German pioneers. They’ve already sold meaty tails of marbled lobster on bread rolls and are experimenting with turning the animal’s high-value protein into a rich, stocky fish stew.
“Since crayfish do not have natural predators, our thinking is, why can’t Berliners take on this role?” He says. “Rather than giving up meat, in this case, the more we eat the better.”
“We need to learn to live with it”
Conservation biologist Rania Adriantsoa first encountered a marbled crayfish in Madagascar when she was a freshwater ecology student, circa 2010. She carefully lifts one from a tank in her lab, about 12 cm long from the tip of its head to its tail. As it wildly waves its antennae and clawed legs, it points to its marbled carapace and small appendages on the underside of its tail where the highly fertile animal can “store between 200 and 700 eggs.” Since it reproduces about four times a year – without the need for mating – a single female has the potential to form a group of several million genetically identical females.
When Adriantsoa went to work in the Department of Invasive Species Control at the University of Antananarivo in Madagascar’s capital, the focus was on stopping the spread of marbled crayfish, a highly destructive substance that eats fish larvae, replacing the native crayfish and destroying the nation’s staple food crop, rice.
“But over time that perception has changed,” Adriantsoa says. “Let’s be clear, you wouldn’t want to intentionally import these things but the fact that they are here and established, the situation now is how to live with it.”
In collaboration with conservation scientist Julia Jones, a professor at Bangor University in Wales, Adriantsoa and an international team of women-led scientists launched Perfect Invader to look at the impact of marbled crayfish on human health. They found that lobster can be an important source of high-quality, inexpensive protein for Madagascar, one of the world’s poorest populations where about 42% of children are affected by stunted growth.
The research is also looking at the potential of marbled crayfish to help tackle the transmission of schistosomiasis, which affects an estimated 290 million people worldwide, including millions in Madagascar. The hypothesis is that the crayfish preys on the freshwater snail that hosts the flatworm parasitic worms that cause acute and chronic disease.
Back in Germany, working with the country’s largest research institute, the Helmholtz Association, Lyko is participating in a pilot project to convert marbled lobster shells, which are high in chitin, a biopolymer, into biodegradable plastics. “You’ll see your first-ever lobster drinking straw this month,” he says.
Jones says the marbled lobster has taught her and other scientists to see the “big picture.”
“While we need to understand the negative environmental impact of this marbled crayfish in Madagascar, we also need to recognize and understand the people who have to learn to live intelligently alongside this marble crayfish — it is there, it cannot be taken away,” she says.
She was agonizing to stress that all measures should be taken to prevent the marbled lobster from getting anywhere else. The animals are banned in the European Union and the United Kingdom, although experts say some are likely to be kept illegally in aquariums.
“They are spreading fast – they were in Poland the last time I looked, and they will be in the UK eventually,” Jones says. “I think the marbled crab is likely to go down in history with other famous invasive species such as the zebra mussel, the cane frog or the gray squirrel.
“If you’re reading about this for the first time, you’re sure to hear a lot about marbled lobster.”