Research Profile: Win Watson – Considering the Lobster

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Win Watson with lobster.By Alan Schulte

Driving along the New England Seacoast in mid-summer, there is likely no more iconic symbol you will find on your journey through the salty seaports than the North American Lobster. Greenish-red, snappy-clawed, and googly-eyed, the highly caricatured lobster, or Homarus americanus, is considered a staple at seaside restaurants and summertime gatherings. However, Win Watson, professor of zoology in the Department of Biological Sciences, has revealed a deeper dimension to this tasty crustacean.

Through years of study and close interaction with lobsters in their natural environment, Watson has found that these creatures behave far differently than previously suspected. When he and his research team attached a small video camera (now known as “Lobster Television,” or “LTV”) to the traps that were being used by his team (and routinely by the entire industry) to document lobster activity in real-time, Watson quickly realized lobsters are surprisingly intelligent. They are able to move freely in and out of the traps at will. This means that the number of lobsters brought to the surface is not a reliable indicator of how many are actually at the sea bottom.

More studies using LTV have ensued, including a study of the dynamics of the ventless traps now used for surveys. The ultimate goal of this research is to provide sound scientific information to managers to inform their decision making and assist in the implementation of appropriate policies and management strategies to protect the lobster industry, which in the northeastern United States is a multimillion dollar natural resource.

Professor Watson notes that scientific research, with all its nuances, often leads him to discoveries that he had never intended, never imagined.

Most recently, this revealed itself as Watson was harvesting lobsters for research. He discovered, during a routine experiment, that they may have the ability to communicate. Watson noticed that some of the lobsters have the ability to create vibrations in the dorsal carapace (the largest part of the shell) in reaction to their environment or stressful situations. This observation has opened up a new avenue of research -- Watson and his students have now begun to study the cardiac rhythms of one lobster in response to another lobster’s vibrating to determine if this is actually a form of communication.

“We know they can hear each other,” Watson says. “What we don’t know is exactly how they do it, or if they even care.”

 Watson admits that, although it is easy to get wrapped up in the complexities of the research and writing proposals for grants, ultimately “what we are doing here is designed to help us train students.”

At any given time, Watson advises three to five graduate students and three to five undergraduates. He is motivated by the learning environment, working together as a team, and sharing knowledge in the lab and out in the field.  

Taking a moment to reflect on the relationship with his students, he compares it to the relationship his friend Sean, a football coach, isn’t able to have with his players. “He doesn’t get to go out there and suit up and play with his players and test his skills against his players on the field the way that I do,” Watson says. “I get to do that on an intellectual level with my students, constantly testing myself, and them, in a peer atmosphere as creative thinkers. It’s kind of cool.”  

Watson says he is as busy with his research as he’s ever been and proud of the work he is doing. Whether it is the practical applications of lobster mating to help local and regional fishers develop more sustainable practices, or taking a closer look at animal behavior and what makes them (and us) “tick,” these projects represent just a fraction of what motivates him. Bringing these discoveries, this passion, to the students, plays a large part, too. “We’re just here figuring stuff out.” That is always the goal.  

And as far as the future is concerned, Watson is right where he wants to be. Whether he is considering the lobster, or other organisms that teach us a little something about ourselves, Win Watson says, “When you figure out these little things, it gives you some faith that there is order to the universe.”