Assumption trio seeks crux of crustacean’s aggressiveness
By Pamela H. Sacks
TELEGRAM & GAZETTE
WORCESTER — Stuart Cromarty has had a long and close relationship with the American lobster.
He studies lobsters and writes about them. He even wears a blue work shirt decorated with a small embroidered crayfish, a cousin to the type of lobster found in northern climes.
“And, yes, I do eat lobster, too,” Mr. Cromarty, an assistant professor of biology at Assumption College, said with a laugh.
Mr. Cromarty, who has conducted research on the American lobster since he was an undergraduate in the marine program at Boston University, invited two of his students to join him this summer in a microscopic examination of his favorite crustacean. Their studies were part of an effort funded by a grant of $250,000 from the National Science Foundation, won under a joint proposal submitted with Gabriele Kass-Simon of the University of Rhode Island.
Mr. Cromarty announced the opportunity in class last winter. Alicia A. Fini and Kimberlee A. Randall, both biology majors who wanted to try basic research, jumped at the chance. Also best friends, they had one condition: If Mr. Cromarty tapped one of them, he had to take the other.
The decision was easy.
“They were some of the best students,” Mr. Cromarty said on a recent afternoon as the three sat around a table in Assumption’s new glass-and-steel science center.
In early June, Ms. Fini, who is from Leominster, and Ms. Randall, of East Longmeadow, moved into an apartment on the campus of the University of Rhode Island at Kingston. They were each paid a $4,000 stipend; Assumption covered the cost of the housing.
“It was a great opportunity to work with your best friend and live on the beach for the summer,” said Ms. Randall, adding that too often the weather did not cooperate with the leisure component of their plans.
The student researchers and their mentors are identifying and analyzing the role and nature of steroid hormones in aggressive behavior in the lobster. Aggression is a vital component of the survival strategies of all animals, Mr. Cromarty said, and is used in the acquisition of food, mates and territory.
The American lobster is a good subject because of its combative nature.
The goal is to discover how lobsters communicate with each other, how they can tell by smelling each other which is the strongest and which the weakest.
“We expect to show that steroids not only alter the internal aggressive state of an animal, but are also used as signaling tools to modify the behavior of an opponent in an aggressive interaction,” Mr. Cromarty explained. “These steroids are released in the urine during a fight. They are smelled by each animal and signal who is bigger, stronger and dominant, and who is the winner and loser.”
The research comes at a time when lobsters are struggling to survive. Their numbers are declining, perhaps because of runoff from pesticides and other chemical sprays. They also are vulnerable to a bacterium that is eating their shells.
“Lots of researchers are spending all their time trying to figure out what is killing the lobsters,” Mr. Cromarty said.
Over the three-year period covered by the grant, the research teams also will gain knowledge of the lobster’s muscular and neurological reactions. That information can be applied to medical research on Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and multiple sclerosis, Mr. Cromarty said.
Lobsters are more like humans than one would imagine, he pointed out. A lobster has a fairly large brain, about the size of the last joint of a human thumb.
“Pound for pound, they have a larger brain than we do,” Mr. Cromarty said. “They have visual and smelling parts of the brain and a part that stores memory.”
Which brings to mind the question on every lobster eater’s mind: When plunged into hot water, does a lobster feel pain?
“You could debate it for months,” Mr. Cromarty said, his accent revealing his South African roots. “The question is, `Do they have a perception of pain like we have?’ ”
While in Rhode Island, Ms. Fini and Ms. Randall, both 21 and entering their senior year, worked three days a week at the Environmental Protection Agency in Narragansett, processing tissue taken from the receptor of the nose of the lobster. They figured out how to place stained specimens on slides, an essential step in the visualization required for their research.
The two students spent the balance of their work time at a laboratory at the university, where Mr. Cromarty, Ms. Kass-Simon and two doctoral students were making cellular recordings to distinguish what a lobster can detect and studying fighting behavior.
“Every day is different,” Mr. Cromarty said of the basic research. “No two days are the same. No two days work well in a row. You make discoveries. It’s a two- or three-week process before you know what you have.”
At the EPA, Ms. Fini and Ms. Randall also were involved in research surrounding an oil spill in Buzzards Bay earlier this summer. They examined loons to see how their organs had been affected by the pollutant.
Lobsters weren’t always Mr. Cromarty’s thing. He started out with an interest in whales and dolphins, just as many others dedicated to marine research.
“It’s hard to get into that area,” he said. “There are spots for only about 100 people. It’s very expensive. They have to get around in boats and ships.”
Instead, he chose laboratory research and began to develop expertise in the lobster, researching its neuromuscular system and making brain recordings as he earned master’s and doctoral degrees at URI.
“They’re incredible,” he said. “The oldest have lived 100 years, and the largest weigh up to 42 pounds. Most weigh about a pound and a quarter. It takes six to seven years — and in the waters off Maine, eight to nine years — to reach that size. A 3-pound lobster is 15 or 16 years old.”
This summer’s team used 80 to 100 lobsters of varying sizes in its work. Many were returned to the waters of Narragansett Bay when the work was completed in early August.
The study will continue with other Assumption students and doctoral candidates during the summers of 2004 and 2005, building on what was accomplished this year.
Meanwhile, Ms. Fini and Ms. Randall will attend a national conference of the Society of Neuroscience in New Orleans in November and a local gathering at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in April. “You share what you’ve discovered and bring back what you’ve learned,” Mr. Cromarty noted.
Both women found the experience valuable.
“It was cool,” said Ms. Randall. “There were lots of things involved in what we were doing day to day.”
One conclusion they drew is that basic research is not for them. Both plan to become physician’s assistants and will apply to Yale, Northeastern and the University of Maine. It is unlikely they will attend one of the two-year programs together, Ms. Fini said. Out of hundreds of applicants, each school accepts about 30 new students a year.
Ms. Fini added that she can say one thing for certain about the lobster’s aggressive nature. The lesson came when she was trying to put a band around a claw.
“They really pinch,” she said, laughing. “They hurt.”