November 30, 2012

Bill Nemitz: Maine scientist discovers lobster-eat-lobster world

Cannibal lobsters? They're real, and a local scientist caught them on video.

By Bill Nemitz

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Noah Oppenheim

John Patriquin / Staff Photographer

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University of Maine graduate student Noah Oppenheim of Falmouth sets up his underwater camera during an experiment that revealed cannibalization among lobsters off Pemaquid Point.

Photo courtesy of Noah Oppenheim

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Meanwhile, down below, all hell broke loose. Not once, but over and over as Oppenheim repeated the experiment 18 times: Little lobster crawls around in circles minding his own business. Big lobster moves in and, with lightning speed, swallows the juvenile whole.

And in one case, it got even better (except, of course, for the little guy in the harness): Big lobster gets chased off by an even bigger lobster who then has the small fry all to himself.

"It was mind-blowing," said Oppenheim. "It told a much more interesting story than I was ever hoping to see."

Now as any lobsterman will tell you -- and more than a few have told Oppenheim -- it's by no means uncommon for lobsters to make mincemeat out of one another within the confines of a trap.

But this was different. Never before had lobsters been caught cannibalizing when not behind bars.

"What he sees is very real," said Steneck, who did similar research (also with cameras) more than two decades ago and sat in on Oppenheim's 15-minute presentation.

Back when he had his eye on them, Steneck noted, "they weren't being eaten" by their elders.


"We're looking at a different world," Steneck replied.

Oppenheim's discovery, by his own admission, is at best preliminary: The real proof that it's a lobster-eat-lobster world down there will come only after he dispenses with the tethers and finds a way to see whether a juvenile lobster can actually escape the nighttime cannibals if given the chance.

"But what nobody has recognized is this random infanticide -- the cannibalism that is occurring in the field in situ (in a fixed place)," he told his rapt audience.

Oppenheim's scientific debut was, alas, not without its glitches. His video froze at several points, deflating what was supposed to be his must-see-TV moment.

"This one's the fight," he promised, the sympathetic crowd chuckling as he frantically tried to get the video moving again. "You want to see this."

Still, balky laptop aside, you couldn't listen to this up-and-coming researcher without marveling at a few equally important revelations.

A kid who moved clear across the country could have stayed out there; after graduating from Reed, Oppenheim spent two years in Alaska working as a groundfish observer for the National Marine Fisheries Service and as a summer deckhand aboard a commercial salmon gillnetter.

Instead, he came home. And when he finishes his three-year, double master's program, home he plans to stay.

"I love the setting. I love the seasons. I love the ocean," Oppenheim said. "And career-wise, I love the opportunity to stay."

Without a tether.


Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:


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