Bug + hair = worst possible combination in nature, but it’s not as horrifying as it sounds.
We’re not talking about the yeti crab, which was the first image I found under “furry lobsters”. No, these smaller “rock” or “spiny” lobsters have bum-fluff rather than heavy Bigfoot hair, and are far too teeny to hug you, even if they did have the massive pincers of the “true” European or American lobsters.
There are three types of furry lobster, and they all belong to the crustacean decapod family Palinuridae. Also referred to as “marine crayfish”, its members aren’t really kitted out for defence. They may look like a multi-purpose, mediaeval torture device, but their abdomens are soft and armourless enough to be sold and eaten as “lobster tail”, so they spend their days sensibly hiding in reef or rock crevices, and their nights munching on small invertebrates. Our furry friends seem elusive enough to avoid the cooking pot, but they’re not completely off the hook.
A singing supper?
The musical furry lobster, for instance, was discovered in 1989 by Annie’s Seafood Pty Ltd near Western Samoa, and possibly also a French vessel near the Tuamotu Archipelago in 1980. As usual, if you’re a bug-liking badass, you can see a picture of one here.
P.J.F. Davie described it fully in 1990, noting its penchant for scuttling around at up to 300m (974ft) deep – the second syllable of its first name, Palibythus, means “bottom of the sea” – and its “stridulant organ”. In other words, it rubs part of its antennae against its antenna plate to make sounds, hence its “musical” moniker. While this sets it apart from the other two, they all make plenty of noise with their colours.
Red but not dead
The Indo-Pacific furry lobster (click here if you’re brave enough) doesn’t have a musical organ or any spiky head horns, but it’s fiery orange-red with an orange tail fan. Even its eggs are orange, and it clambers about on coral in shallower waters up to 27m (88ft) deep, usually at night. It has the largest range of all three, turning up on almost every continent except Europe and Antarctica. Like its relatives, it probably evolved in shallow tropical seas, and its Caribbean cousin reiterates why it’s nocturnal. (And no, it’s not because you’d jump if you saw it in daylight.)
The first one found near Puerto Rico had been regurgitated by a fish. A red hind, to be exact, which wasn’t even thought to eat them! Also known as the copper furry lobster (guess why), it has 12 larval stages, lasting a total of 10 months. One of these, the phyllosoma larval stage, is unique to the family Palinuridae and named after their transparent leaf-like appearance. It also gives them long trailing forelegs and eye-stalks, so even crustaceans have an awkward teenage phase. The Caribbean furry lobster has recently been found in Brazil’s Rocas Atoll Marine Reserve too, so here’s hoping it stays out of trouble regardless of age.
Apart from our musical friend who’s currently Data Deficient, furry lobsters are Least Concern, thanks to their large range and complete lack of commercial interest. Because who fancies hairball soup?
Latin: Palibythus magnificus (musical) / Palinurellus wieneckii (Indo-Pacific) /Palinurellus gundlachi (Caribbean)
What? Small lobsters covered in tiny hairs
Where? You can probably guess for the Caribbean and Indo-Pacific ones, but the musical one is found near Guam, Samoa and French Polynesia
How big? Caribbean up to 15 cm / 5.9 inches long; Indo-Pacific up to 20 cm / 7.8 inches; Musical up to 27 cm / 10 inches.
Endangered? The musical furry lobster is currently Data Deficient, but the other two are Least Concern and sensibly keep out of the way.
Probable motto: Ironically I try to avoid hairy situations.
They look, er, less horrifying than expected. Do they need my help at all?
As above, they’re not tasty enough to be threatened by commercial fishing, and although scarce, they have pretty large ranges. Then again, the ocean has been a dumping ground for far worse horrors than hairy crustaceans, so it could always use some love:
Just to prove I’m not fibbing:
Baba, Keiji, and Shokita, Shigemitsu. 1984. “Palinurellus wieneckii”, a rare species of spiny lobster found in Okinawa-Jima of the Ryukyus (Crustacea: Decapoda: Palinuridae)“. Galaxea 3(117-118).
Bradbury, Jack W., and Vehrencamp, Sandra L. No date. “Animal communication“. Britannica.com.
Bunkley-Williams, Lucy, and Williams, Ernest Jr. 2010. “First Record of the Caribbean Furry Lobster, Palinurellus Gundlachi (Decapoda, Synaxidae) in Puerto Rico and as a Food Item of the Red Hind, Epinephelus Guttatus (Perciformes, Serranidae)“. Crustaceana 83(7):893-895.
de Carvalho Gaeta, Juliana et al. 2015. “Update on the lobster species from Rocas Atoll Marine Reserve, Brazil“. Check List 11(4): 1705.
Cobb, J. Stanley, and Phillips, Bruce F. 1980. The Biology and Management of Lobsters, Volume II: Ecology and Management. Academic Press.
Davie, P.J.F. 1990. “A new genus and species of marine crayfish, Palibythus magnificus, and new records of Palinurellus (Decapoda: Palinuridae) from the Pacific Ocean“. Invertebrate Systematics 1990(4):685-695.
Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. No date. “Lobster“. Britannica.com.
Holthuis, L.B. No date. “Caribbean furry lobster (Palinurellus gundlachi)“. Marine Species Identification Portal.
Holthuis, L.B. 1983. “Furry lobsters“. FAO Species Identification Sheets.
Holthuis, L.B. No date. “Indo-Pacific furry lobster (Palinurellus wieneckii)“. Marine Species Identification Portal.
Idreesbabu, K.K. et al. 2018. “First record of the rare Furry Lobster Palinurellus wieneckii (De Man, 1881)(Decapoda: Palinuridae) from the Arabian Sea“. Journal of Threatened Taxa 10(15):12986–12989
Ng, Peter K.L., and Naruse, Tohru. 2014. “The lobsters of Christmas Island and Cocos (Keeling) Islands, with new records of Palinurellus wieneckii (De Man, 1881) and Enoplometopus voigtmanni Türkay, 1989 (Crustacea: Decapoda: Palinuridae, Scyllaridae, Enoplometopidae)“. Raffles Bulletin of Zoology Supplement No. 30:305-312.
“Palibythus magnificus“. No date. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
“Palinurellus gundlachi “. No date. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
“Palinurellus wieneckii“. No date. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
“Palinuridae Latreille, 1802“. No date. World Register of Marine Species.
Poore, Gary C.B. 2004. Marine Decapod Crustacea of Southern Australia: A Guide to Identification. Museum Victoria.
Poupin, Joseph, and Juncker, Matthieu. 2010. “A guide to the decapod crustaceans of the
South Pacific”. Secretariat of the Pacific Community, Noumea, New Caledonia.