The Seymour Marine Discovery Center, where I spend some time hanging out several days a week, has a spiny lobster (Panulirus interruptus) on exhibit. While the lobster doesn’t have an official name, for obvious reasons the aquarists call it Fluffy. We don’t know if Fluffy is male or female, but for convenience sake we’ve been referring to it as ‘he’ which may or may not be sexist, depending on one’s point of view. Fluffy came to the Seymour Center as a full-grown adult in September (I think) of 2012 and has molted every year close to the anniversary of his arrival.
Fluffy’s latest molt occurred some time between Saturday afternoon and this morning, probably in the dark of night. The molt remains in the tank, to show visitors what happened.
Being encased in a rigid exoskeleton, all arthropods grow in stepwise fashion, increasing in size only during that brief period between when the old exoskeleton has been shed and the new one has hardened. Once they reach full adult size they may continue to molt yearly, but no longer grow. Fluffy’s exoskeleton may be hard by now, and to the naked eye he doesn’t look any larger than he was before. Then again, if he was already full-grown when he came here, I wouldn’t expect him to grow much, if at all.
When crabs and lobsters molt, the old exoskeleton splits apart at the junction between the carapace and abdomen. The animal slips out backwards through the split, leaving the entire covering of its body behind. Before molting the lobster’s epidermis would have resorbed some of the minerals from the old cuticle, and what is left behind is much thinner and more fragile than it was when the animal was wearing it.
In the photo above you can see the split between the carapace and abdomen. I think it’s amazing how the legs, eye stalks, and antennae can slip out of the old cuticle without being broken or damaged. However, until the new exoskeleton has fully hardened the animal is vulnerable and usually hides out for a few days. Fluffy may not eat until tomorrow or the next day. One interesting note. A lobster’s gills, being external structures, are covered by a thin layer of cuticle and are molted along with everything else. If you come across a recent crab molt, lift up the carapace and you might be able to see where the gills are located. How cool is that?