50 Shades of Lobster Red: What Color are Lobsters, Really?

A quick Instagram search for #lobsters brings up an army of bright red crustaceans, straight out of a children’s guide to ‘Under the Sea’. That’s not all, though, you’ll also find plenty of snaps of unfortunate beach goers who, after a few too many hours’ sun-seeking, have found themselves as “red as a lobster”.

Unsurprisingly, then, most modern cartoons and illustrations stick to the iconic ‘lobster red’ when depicting these special sea creatures. For the Chinese, the color red symbolizes good luck; it’s no wonder lobster is a popular dish at Chinese New Year celebrations. Red also represents passion, romance and love, so don’t forget to order a romantic lobster dinner for Valentine’s Day, your anniversary, or a red hot dinner date! Hint Hint.

live lobster delivery
Iconic Red Maine Lobster

Are Lobsters Really Red in Color?

In the face of all of the unquestionably crimson lobster imagery, it might then seem strange to ask: are lobsters really red?

Some landlocked Americans believe that a wild, live lobster is red in color. At LobsterAnywhere a few customers have questioned whether the lobster delivered to their home was safe to cook, because it wasn’t red. However, alongside the new wave of cooking channels and popular reality shows such as the Discovery Channel’s ‘Lobstermen’, lobster-lovers are beginning to learn more about Maine’s most famous export. For a closer look at lobsters in popular culture check out our blog post about all the fun lobster movies.

What Color are Lobsters?

Lobsters come in many different colors because of the pigment chromatophores in their shells. When they are cooked, all the pigments are masked except for astaxanthin, the red background pigment. The red pigment is the most stable component of the coloring in a lobster. The greens and browns which darken the shell in a live lobster are destroyed by the cooking process.

Color Lobsters Before Cooked

When they are cooked, all the pigments are masked except for astaxanthin, the red background pigment. The red pigment is the most stable component of the coloring in a lobster. The greens and browns which darken the shell in a live lobster are destroyed by the cooking process.

Fishermen have been known to bring in blue, yellow, red and spotted live lobsters. Usually, when lobsters are hard-shelled, their shells are a darker color. Also, when you cook hard-shell lobsters, their shells will turn a brick red color and sometimes black, whereas soft-shelled lobsters, when cooked, are a bright red color.

As you will see, the traditional Maine lobster comes in a surprisingly wide range of colors. Below is the New England Aquarium’s collection of lobsters in rare colors.

Kinds of Lobster

Before we get on to the specifics of coloring, we should probably establish: what exactly is a lobster? The term ‘lobster’ itself is actually a fairly wide term, encompassing the entire Nephropidae family. Although what most people consider to be a lobster is usually the more familiar northern species (the American and European lobster), lobsters are found in all oceans, and the term also includes several varieties of scampi, from oceans in both the northern and southern hemispheres.

So, back to color! We all know that cooked lobsters are red; no matter what their original color, they all turn the familiar ‘lobster red’ when immersed in boiling water. But what’s going on before they reach our stoves?

The Cape Lobster, found in the seas around South Africa, and in fact only recently included in the Nephropidae family, is actually the only lobster variety that is red whilst alive. However, yellow, brown, and olive specimens have also been found, and the lobster itself is rare enough that it is not known which color is most common.

In general, live Maine lobsters are a greenish-brown color, but some truly remarkable colors have surfaced from the ocean depths and fallen into cooking pots over the years! European lobsters are generally blue, with a yellow ventral surface (the belly). Where it gets really interesting, though, is the story of the Maine lobster, also known as the American lobster, or the ‘true’ lobster, which is the largest lobster variety by far. Scientists believe darker colored lobsters are likely to have evolved through natural selection in order to avoid predators, so it is unsurprising that these are the largest variety in the wild.  You’ll also see darker colored lobsters are found in the deeper waters, while the lighter colored lobsters are closer to shore. The sun rays of the sun will lighten the lobster’s shell.

The shells of all lobsters have a mix of red, blue and yellow pigments, or chromatophores, and the exact mix of these varies as much in individual lobsters as hair and skin color does in us humans. Lobsters’ shells thicken not long after molting, and the thicker, ‘hard shelled’ lobsters tend to be darker in color than ‘soft shell’ lobsters that have recently shed their exoskeletons.

Scientists say that lobsters have probably always been cropping up in unusual colors here and there, but in today’s world, where everyone has a camera (and a Twitter account) means that the odd ones get much more attention. So, what’s really behind these multi-colored oddities?

What Color Lobsters

The Blue LobsterO

Don’t be fooled, lobster are not red! One of Norman Rockwell’s most popular covers deput in the Saturday Evening Post on April’s Fools Day, 1945. It has over 50 intentional inaccuracies. The blue lobster in the illustration is not one of them. Can you find the other “mistakes” and contradictions below?

Norman Rockwell Blue Lobster
Blue Colored Lobster
image credit: sneakermestupid.com

One in two Million: The odds of catching a blue lobster are 1-in-2 million, while yellow and orange-and-black calico lobsters comes in at 1-in-30 million, split-colored varieties have been pegged at 1-in-50 million, and white — the rarest of all — at 1-in-100 million. Science tells us that blue lobsters are not just uncommon, but are in fact mutants, as their blue color is caused by a genetic mutation.

Some American lobsters have a single mutation one piece of their SNA that results in overproduction of a particular protein; so, rather than having a mix of pigments that result in the typical greenish-brown, their shell contains only bright blue pigment. In the wild, approximately one one in 2 million lobsters are blue, though it isn’t clear whether all of these are descendants of the first mutant blue lobster, or if this mutation is independently occurring. Just this August a Swan Island stern man hit the lottery when he trapped a rare blue lobster weighing in about two pounds. He plans to donate this special crustacean to a local aquarium.

Yellow Lobsters

Yellow Maine lobsters, although not really albinos, are truly rare; roughly one in 30,000,000 wild lobsters are yellow. As with the bright blue lobsters, the color is the result of a mutation in the proteins that bond with the shell pigments. At least five yellow lobsters have been caught in the last ten years, one of which made it all the way to Hawaii from Canada (in a shipment, he didn’t swim!) before being discovered.

Albino Lobster
Photo credit: Owls Head Lobster Company

Albino Lobsters

Albino lobsters do exist, and one was caught in 2006 in Massachusetts. These lobsters are true albinos and entirely lack pigmentation throughout their bodies, which is though to be a significant disadvantage in the

wild. It is therefore not surprising that experts estimate that only one in 100 million adult lobsters are albino.

Calico Lobsters

Calico Lobster

Calico lobsters, also known as ‘orange lobsters’, are also quite rare, ranking alongside the yellow lobster at roughly one in 30 million. They are notable in the unique pattern of mottled orange and black on their shells.

Chimerical Lobsters

Several lobsters have been caught that had a different coloration pattern on their right and left halves. These lobsters are true oddities. One showed up off the coast of Maine, again in 2006 – from hereon to be known as the Year of the Weird Lobsters. In the last 50 years only three of these special creatures have been spotted, and the odds of finding another are one in 50 million.

We call these ‘chimeras’ because they aren’t mutants, as such, but something altogether stranger. They are in fact a conjoined twin, the result of two embryos developing in the same egg, but fusing into one individual animal. This means that the left half is the brother or sister of the right half. Odder still, sometimes the right half is a different sex than the left half. That must really be confusing, especially for other lobsters! Now, logic dictates that chimerical lobsters should be a lot more common than we might expect, because if both twins are the same color, how would we know? Not many people go around comparing the DNA of the right and left claws of random sea creatures. At least, no one I know!

Red Lobsters

Finally, the red lobster! Not exclusively the window trophy of seafood restaurants, truly red lobsters really do exist in the wild, though not as commonly as our visual lobster culture would have you expect. Around one in ten million lobsters are naturally red before cooking. Apparently these lobsters aren’t actually mutants, they are the same as blue and yellow lobsters, but they just have more red pigment, and so manifest with red exoskeletons. As you might expect, they stay red once cooked.

Into the Pot!

By now we’ve seen that, as far as live lobsters are concerned, if lobsters are red, then red comes in 50 shades of yellow, blue, green, brown… But what we’re all most concerned with is the lobster on our plate; are all cooked lobsters red? Well, mostly; almost all lobsters will change color when heated, as their pigments are altered, though they will retain the subtle differences in color that they had whilst alive, so they will turn different shades of red. Unless you find that one in 100 million albino lobster, which lacks pigment entirely, the red background pigment of any lobster variety will become visible when cooked. Scientists at the University of Manchester have identified this pigment as being the chemical ‘astaxantin’, a carotenoid pigment that is the same red color as cooked lobster. When the creature is cold, this chemical is overridden by a blue protein, ‘crustacyanin’, but when the lobster is cooked, the pigment bonds that cause the greenish-brown color of the cold lobster are broken down, leaving only the carotenoid, or ‘red’ pigment. This means, though, that we’re left in a philosophical quandary: if all lobsters (save the super rare albino) have this red pigment, are all lobsters really red, even before they’re cooked? Maybe our cartoons aren’t so inaccurate after all! Not in Maine? You can order a live Maine lobster shipped overnight to your front door.

See Rare Colored Live Lobsters

Do you want to see some live colored lobsters in person? Take a road trip to scenic West Boothbay Harbor, and visit the Maine State Aquarium (Don’t forget to grab a lobster roll on the way!).  You might see a giant claw from a 23 pound “Moby Dick” sized lobster along with some blue and multi-colored lobsters. There are a couple touch tanks  with small sea creatures like small sharks, star fish, crabs, and of course baby lobsters!

Maine State Aquarium
194 McKown Point Rd,
West Boothby Habor, ME 04575
(207) 633-9559

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