Markus Frederich, a professor of marine sciences at the University of New England, talks about Currant, a blue and brown split lobster, as he pulls it from a tank to show Claire Fecteau-Volk, left, a sophomore, and Aubrey Jane, a graduate research assistant. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

At first glance, the lobster moving slowly through the water looks like most others caught in the Gulf of Maine.

But when Dr. Markus Frederich pulls it from a tank of seawater at the University of New England, the difference is immediately clear. The lobster, named Currant, has vivid blue claws and legs, a few bright orange knuckles and a shell that’s perfectly divided, half blue and half brown.

Marcus Frederich, holds Currant, a blue and brown split lobster at UNE on Wednesday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The odds that a lobster will look like Currant? Around 1 in 50 million.

Currant is not the only unusual crustacean at the university’s Arthur P. Girard Marine Science Center, which has become a magnet for rare lobsters. There’s Autumn, with a sunny yellow shell, and Peaches, a fiery orange lobster carrying thousands of eggs expected to hatch this spring. Three-year-old Fig started life as a blue larva, but now sports a purple shell.

Why are these lobsters brightly colored instead of the more common mottled brown? Are their colors influenced by water temperature or diet? And what does this mean for the future of the species?

Those are the questions Frederich, a professor of marine sciences, and a team of student researchers will try to answer by decoding these lobsters’ DNA.


The new research program is believed to be the first of its kind and everyone involved is excited to find out more about the genetics of these lobsters that capture the attention of people far from the coast of Maine.

“Who doesn’t get excited?” said Aubrey Jane, a graduate research assistant who studies lobster larvae. “Even the saltiest lobsterman likes a blue lobster.”

The lobsters will eventually be returned to the ocean. But first, the team has to develop non-invasive methods for extracting genetic samples, which may provide insight into why some lobsters diverge from their typical coloration.

Aubrey Jane, a graduate research assistant, takes a yellow lobster named Autumn from one of the tanks at the University of New England. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The project stems from a broader research effort on the thermal tolerance of lobsters – meaning how much the warming waters affect their survival. That work, funded through the National Science Foundation, brought together UNE, the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in Boothbay and Hood College in Maryland to try to figure out how climate change impacts lobsters in the Gulf of Maine.

Their research looks at how temperature changes affect the lobsters as they develop, from the youngest eggs to the oldest living crustaceans. This should help them create a model to see how climate change impacts the overall population, Frederich said.

The early research led them to discover a series of genes that effect shell development and color. So a new question was born: what’s causing the rainbow?


“These rare lobsters are appearing more and more on social media and no one seems to know exactly why they turn these different colors,” Frederich said. “We have access to all these different lobsters and we have the students who are eager to do the research. We thought, ‘Let’s jump on this.’ ”


Most of the rare lobsters at UNE were caught by lobstermen fishing off the coast of Maine. When they share photos of their bright shells on social media, they often go viral and end up in the news.

Aubrey Jane holds a purple lobster named Fig, which she caught and has raised since it was a young blue larvae. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

That doesn’t surprise Jane, the research assistant, who has worked with lobstermen since moving to Maine from New Jersey to attend UNE. Everyone is captivated by them, including lobstermen, she said.

Fig, pictured as a young, blue stage four larval lobster. Photo courtesy of Markus Frederich

“If you’re a lobsterman pulling up brown lobsters all the time, it’s exciting to see some bright yellow or bright blue critter come up,” she said. Her partner is a local lobsterman who donated Autumn, the yellow lobster (1-in-30 million), to the lab.

Jane caught, raised and donated Fig, the 1-in-a-million baby purple lobster, to the Marine Science Center. He was a bright blue stage four larval lobster when she found him, but his color changed as he grew.


“That was a surprise,” said Frederich, who had not seen a purple lobster before Fig. “You catch a bluish larvae and then get a purple lobster. It’s insane.”

Frederich is optimistic that the research will lead to answers about the coloration of lobsters like Currant, the dual-colored caught and donated by Boothbay resident Eben Wilson of the FV Lettie Elise.

Currant – now about 7 years old and the size of a 1-pound lobster sold at grocery stores – was actually two animals in the early embryonic stage, Frederich said.

“The larva of a blue lobster merged with the larva of a regular lobster, then like conjoined twins, grew up like this,” he said, flipping Currant over to show how the color splits on the tail.

Currant was once two different lobsters – one blue, one brown – early in the embryonic stage. You can see a clear line down its back showing the two colors. Photo courtesy of Markus Frederich

Currant was caught in November and Jane drove up to Boothbay to collect her. She brought her home in a cooler full of seaweed and was immediately impressed by the lobster’s beauty.

“This is one of the coolest ones you could have,” she said.


The lobstermen are interested in these questions, too.

“I know a lot of the lobstermen that I’ve worked with and those who are donating them are really fascinated by the rare colored lobsters,” she said.


Frederich and his students are keeping a keen eye on Peaches, the one-clawed orange lobster that became a viral sensation after being caught in Casco Bay by Capt. Gregg Turner, a Scarborough fisherman, and his crew, Sage Blake and Mandy Cyr.

The odds of finding an orange lobster are 1-in-30-million.

Peaches, known as a “cull” because of the missing claw, already presented a unique opportunity for students to learn about limb regrowth and how lobsters adapt to injuries. After arriving at the school, Peaches released the eggs she now carries on the underside of her tail. (A 1-pound lobster typically carries about 8,000 eggs.)


Normally, it’s illegal to take undersized or egg-carrying females out of the ocean, but the school has a teaching permit from the state that allows it to possess 10 undersized lobsters.

After discovering Peaches’ eggs, Frederich immediately reached out to the department and received a permit that allows the university to raise an unlimited number of sub-legal sized lobsters from that lobster only.

Markus Frederich, a professor of marine sciences at UNE, holds lobster Peaches’ tail, which is filled with eggs. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The university also has permission from the Department of Marine Resources to keep all of Peaches’ larvae, and see how many develop orange or other-colored shells. Those eggs are expected to hatch this spring.

Claire Fecteau-Volk, a second-year marine sciences student on the research team, said working with rare lobsters is exciting – she looks at them and wonders, “Why did you happen? How did you happen?” – and it also gives students a chance to use lab techniques that will be instrumental later in their careers, regardless of what they’re researching.

“It’s a really fascinating application, considering they’re just really cool lobsters,” Fecteau-Volk said. “It’s a really good opportunity to learn how to be a good scientist outside of the classroom.”

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