Christie Wilcox describes a terrible experiment. Investigators were mystified by an area around a Pacific island that was empty of lobsters, so they dumped a bunch of lobsters there to see what happened. And then…
“Visibility was great that day, and virtually the entire sea bottom started to move,” he said.
That movement was countless whelks. They started to climb onto the newcomers, sticking to their legs. “I didn’t know then, but they’d started to suck them alive, basically. It was like a horror movie,” Barkai said. “It actually was a bit frightening to watch.” The lobsters simply didn’t know how to respond. They were outnumbered and overwhelmed.
“To my horror, in about 30, 40 minutes, all the lobsters were killed.”
Barkai managed to bring two whelk-coated lobsters back to the surface to show the crew—which is when the first photo in this piece was shot. The bewilderment on his face says everything. On the ship, they carefully pulled the whelks off—over 300 per lobster. “When we removed the whelks from the lobsters, they were empty shells. There was no meat left at all whatsoever. They were simply empty shells,” he recalled. “Basically the only thing that kept them together was the whelks, so the moment we removed the whelks, the lobsters just fell apart.”
But perhaps the most awful part was seeing up close how the whelks had done the lobsters in. They had penetrated every single soft tissue that they could find with their tubular mouthparts—the lobsters’ eyes, joints, anywhere with even a little give. “You could see these very long pipes coming in from the inside of the lobster,” Barkai explained. The poor lobsters—”they didn’t have a chance.”
So, to oppose the lobsters, one must be a whelk. Which is interesting, because the lobster-devouring whelks don’t seem to exhibit much in the way of hierarchical behavior, and do have some anti-lobsterian social behaviors.
Pity the male of the marine whelk, Solenosteira macrospira. He does all the work of raising the young, from egg-laying to hatching — even though few of the baby snails are his own.
The surprising new finding by researchers at the University of California, Davis, puts S. macrospira in a small club of reproductive outliers characterized by male-only child care. Throw in extensive promiscuity and sibling cannibalism, and the species has one of the most extreme life histories in the animal kingdom.
Now that I’ve stuck the knife in, let’s twist it a bit.
“The promiscuity in the female snails is extraordinary,” Kamel said, noting that some females mate with as many as a dozen different males.
Whelks: the lobster’s worst nightmare. I’ve been saying for years you’ve got to admire a good mollusc.