TRURO, Mass. – While visiting Cape Cod National Seashore recently, 10-year-old Elena Butterbaugh and her 8-year-old sister, Alice, stumbled upon an out-sized crustacean that could washed ashore straight out of a Dr. Seuss storybook.
Trailing the girls on a Thanksgiving walk along the Pamet Area Trails and onto the shore just north of Ballston Beach, Eric and Jess Butterbaugh thought they heard their daughters yell out “a monster! a monster!”
“They were actually saying ‘a lobster, a lobster!'” said Eric Butterbaugh.
They knew it was unusual enough to find a lobster just randomly hanging out on the strand, in that place between sea and land where the dispersing waves sizzle with foam and the sand is polished to a smooth, fleetingly glassy finish that can reflect the sky. What elevated it to the next level of oddity was its color.
“It was blue,” said Elena, joining her parents and sister on the phone Tuesday from their Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania home, sharing the details of their exciting beach encounter over their Cape Cod holiday vacation.
The youngster clarified that “it wasn’t just like a specific blue. There were a few different shades of blue.”
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The family visited Cape Cod often, and knew about lobsters and the sea
Although they don’t live near the ocean, the family makes frequent trips to Cape Cod and are familiar with the creatures of the sea and shore.
“I knew right away that the girls had found a very rare lobster. We’ve been to the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History a number of times and have seen their blue lobster, so we knew that blue lobsters are rare,” said Eric Butterbaugh. “We also knew that the lobster we found was big. However, I didn’t realize exactly how big it was until we went back to the museum a few days afterwards and saw their lobsters. The Truro lobster was easily two or three times the size of the lobsters that are at the museum.”
He estimates the barnacle-encrusted lobster was about 10 pounds, and “easily around 2 feet long,” with claws he described as “massive.”
Blue lobsters are very rare, expert says
Tyan Bassett, the animal care coordinator at the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History in Brewster, said blue lobsters are exceedingly rare. Some scientists estimate there’s a one in two million chance of finding a blue lobster, while others say the odds are far greater, depending on the degree to which the coloration is owing to diet or genetics.
“There’s a couple of things that we’ve learned about blue lobsters here. One is it might be dietary blue, meaning it’s lacking a certain food in its diet, so it turns blueish,” Bassett said. “We’ve had one of those ourselves at the museum. When it molted, it was brown again.”
And then there are the blue lobsters that are genetically blue. “They legitimately lack the pigment to make them be brown,” Bassett said.
Lobsters get their more familiar brown coloration from a red pigment called astaxanthin, which reacts to proteins in the layers of the shell – the pigment is the same one that makes shrimp and salmon appear pink. Some proteins in the shell bind the astaxanthin to create a blue tone; others create more red and yellow tones. Together, the layers of color create the overall brown appearance of most lobsters. When the amount of astaxanthin is low, the lobster appears blue overall. This could be the result of a diet that’s low in the pigment, or a genetic mutation in which the lobsters create an abundance of a blue pigment called crustacyanin.
It’s rare to find a lobster just “walking around on the beach”
The size of the crustacean and the manner of its discovery – finding a lobster just “walking around on the beach” – were also exceptional, Bassett said. As for the 10-pound estimate on the weight of the lobster, she said, “that’s huge!”
“The biggest one we have at the museum is about four pounds,” Bassett said.
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When they discovered the lobster on the beach, the family called the museum to report their find and spoke with Bassett. After briefly discussing trying to bring the lobster to the museum, Eric Butterbaugh said, “I wasn’t sure that we could keep the lobster cold enough to safely transport it” and they didn’t want to harm it. Plus, he noted, they were at least a mile from the car.
“I soon realized that I didn’t want to be the one to put such an incredible creature in a cage, especially since it’s probably older than I am,” he said. “Tyan gave me some tips to get the lobster back into the water.”
The family spent about 20 minutes in all observing the lobster and attempting to get it back into the ocean.
“It was incredible. A lobster on the beach in and of itself is rare,” Eric Butterbaugh said. “But for it to be blue and for it to be as big as it was, Tyan said it was just a wonderful omen. Before I tossed it back in, I made a little wish.”