Commercial Fisheries News - May 2000

The mystery of lobster vibrations

Clawed lobsters produce a low frequency vibration that sounds like the buzzing of a honeybee. The sound is produced through brief and rapid contractions of a muscle at the base of the antennae.

Lobster sound frequency is far too low (approximately 10 Hz) for our ears to perceive without the aid of an amplifier. However, we can feel the sound as a vibration. Occasionally, a lobster will quake in your hand, giving the sensation of a mild electrical vibration much like the feel of an electric razor or cake mixer. Apparently, clawed lobsters produce sound vibrations only when they are physically agitated.

The purpose of lobster sound production is unknown. Lobsters are able to best detect sounds within the range of frequencies they produce. In spite of their ability to hear each other, lobsters do not seem to use the vibration during social encounters.

To test for the possible function of lobster sound, I put a hydrophone, or underwater microphone, in the water to attempt to record the sound during various lobster activities.

No sounds were recorded during feeding, courting, mating, or fighting. For the behaviors observed, clawed lobsters used their sense of smell and touch to communicate over short distances. The only way I could coax a lobster to buzz was by poking and prodding it physically.

What else might they use sound for? Lobsters may use their vibrations to escape danger, to sound a general alarm, or to communicate over long distances, since the range of low frequency sound is much greater than that of odor and touch.

Imagine a lobster in the jaws of a predatory fish. The lobster lets out a maddening "buzz, buzz, buzz." The startled fish drops the lobster. Or perhaps, even if the fish eats the lobster anyway, neighboring lobsters may hear the sounds and escape to safety.

Ask the Lobster Doc