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The Selection and Care of Spiny Lobsters in Home Aquaria

'But it Wasn't a Rock!' It Was' A Rock Lobster!' --The B52's


By: Adam Jackson  

You Can Keep Those in Aquariums? 

Hey fellow aquarists! Yes I'm talking to you out there. What's the first thing that springs to mind when you here the word 'lobster' or the phrase 'Rock Lobster.'  Lets go down the list; 1.) Over priced dinner for a date that's no where near worth it. 2.) An old B-52 song that lasts just a little too long and finally 3.) A recent, very entertaining, segment of the hit television show 'Family Guy.'  I bet the last thing you thought of, even you old salts out there, was; 'Suitable Aquarium Specimen.' Believe it or not that's what I'm here to discuss; the classification, proper captive environment, care and selection of the interesting crustaceans belonging to the family Palinuridae. (A.K.A The Rock or Spiny Lobsters) While I admit they aren't generally recommended for the mixed reef/invertebrate or fish only display for that matter, given a dedicated display and proper care, these animals are quite worthy aquarium specimens in their own right. 

Name confusion, In the Aquarium Hobby? No, It Couldn't Be. 

             Taxonomic Classification and 'local' names for these animals is as follows; 

Kingdom:                     Animalia

Phylum:                        Arthropoda

Sub-Phylum:                 Crustacea

Class:                           Malacostraca

Order:                          Decapoda

Family:             Palinuridae

Genus:                          Panulirus 

Common Names:          Panulirus Lobsters, Rock Lobsters, Spiny Lobsters, Langoste Lobsters and Clawless Lobsters 

The Bio. Of These Large Crustaceans. 

            Over 20 different species belong to the genus Panulirus and their distribution ranges quite widely. Members of this genus can be found in the Tropical Pacific Waters such as Hawaii, temperate Pacific waters such as California and even as far as the Atlantic subtropics in the Caribbean.  The main feature that differentiates Panulirus Lobsters, from other Lobsters, is the lack of a lack of large claws (Chelipeds) found in other cousins such as Homarus sp. and Astacoidea sp. Though not to be undone Panulirus boasts a large pair of walking legs in place of the missing claws. Since they lack the aforementioned claws these animals are often served 'tail' only in commercial dining than as a full specimen such as other lobsters. They also harbor a pair of antennas that are specialized for sensory perception to help the lobster detect adjust to it's surroundings, they are normally kept alongside the body and only extended when in use. Panulirus is in large part nocturnal, taking refuge in caves, crevices and overhangs during the day and feeding and hunting during dusk and nighttime hours.  Though at times specimens can be found relatively close to each other; generally individual lobsters are intolerant of each other, excluding a very interesting, seemingly ceremonial gathering that occurs between the species endemic to the Bahamas.  The 'ceremony' starts with small gathering in shallower waters just before the dreaded 'storm season.'  Once the individual congregation gains numbers the animals march together in a very orderly line, 'Follow-the-leader' style, into deeper water.  Logical guesses lead scientists to hypothesize that the 'march' into deeper water is a response to the storm and that the sudden social behavior of these quite anti-social creatures is a defensive mechanism.  Quite an odd but very eerily beautiful sight to see, I hope one day to see it in person myself.   

NOT a Specimen for Casual Aquarists

I find it very sad to walk into various Local Fish Stores and see multiple Spiny lobsters, as hardy as this genus can be they simply are not suited to the average home aquarium.  The list of 'compatible' organisms is quite short, arguably non-existent.  Furthermore most private aquaria is to small to house these organisms, some reach sizes upwards of two feet (24').  These overgrown 'roaches' are quite indiscriminate of what they will eat and should be the poster child for that popular hobby phrase, 'Opportunistic omnivore.' Any invertebrates, sessile or motile, are at risk of predation and the clumsy movement of these animals can topple unstable rock fixtures or decorations.  And yes, even fish are at risk with a large lobster in the tank.  They are by no means to be classified as social or 'reef-safe' and in normal circumstances should not cohabitat with other organisms, even other lobsters.  As with all lobsters, Panulirus is quite the messy eater, and a big waste maker, if you get my drift. This in combination with their large size allows a lobsters bio-load on a system to rival that of any predatory fish.  The nutrient accumulation caused by these animals alone can cause the balance of smaller, unprepared systems to take a negative turn.  I admit, on the grand scheme Spiny lobsters are quite inappropriate aquarium specimens. To sum the above up in one phrase; 'Species Only Display Necessary.'   

Selection; This will Require A Little More Thought than Lobster Picking at the Local Market'

Also a Little Ranting From the Author 

The wide distribution of Spiny Lobsters make their care quite variable at times which cause many of the species to be placed in the; 'Best left in the ocean' category. Many species of Spiny Lobsters were never meant to be placed in tropical reef aquaria. A prime example of inappropriate stocking includes but is not limited to placing an animal in an unnatural biotope.  Living in Southern California one of my largest disagreements and anguish toward local livestock dealers is derived from the fact that many offer local specimens, which are temperate.  The temperate specimens are then sold to uninformed hobbyists to be kept in tropical tanks, a very unscrupulous practice.  Spiny lobsters also fall prey to these poor practices. If you plan to place a specimen such as Panulirus Interuptus (The California Spiny Lobster) in a tropical water you might as well go ahead and place it in the pot on the stove, the end result will be the same. In fact the latter would probably be much more humane, placing a temperate species in sub/tropical temperature means a slow and painful death that may take a few months. Temperate Spiny lobsters like P. Interuptus come from temperate water and does best in temperatures in the sixty(ies)-degree Fahrenheit range, lower seventies at the most.  If you have to keep one of these temperate species than a water chiller is must, these units can be quite expensive and so it would probably be in your best interests to keep a tropical species. In my opinion the tropical species are much more aesthetically appealing anyway. The following list includes a few Spiny Lobsters, which an aquarist may come across: 

P. marginatus:            Known locally as ula, this specimen endemic to the 50th state of the United States, yes the beautiful chain of islands known as Hawaii.  The specimen itself is highly protected as are all the animals in Hawaii and thus it will be quite difficult to attain one.  Currently any commercial gathering of any form is illegal with this specimen. Only hand-caught Ula over certain lengths are legal. Having said that they are beautiful creatures and given the right care is very hardy.  As with most lobsters they are quite the voracious eaters and will easily track and consume any invertebrate or plant life that is house with it.  Tank lighting and rock arrangement will need to be thought very carefully as this animal is a dedicated nocturnal reef denizen.  This species reportedly attains lengths of 18' though 12' is much more common. 

P. versicolor:              The Blue Spiny Lobster. In my experience this is the most widely available species in the aquarium trade. It's also a tank buster at a potential 24.' Though they attain this large size, on the bright side, they are much more 'predictable and agreeable' than their cousins especially as juveniles. For the most part they are fairly timid and 'calm.' And at smaller sizes it is not unheard of to hear them cohabiting in mixed reef/invertebrate/fish tanks even with other lobsters, causing no harm.  Though they are more timid than most lobsters, they are still lobsters and can be quite boisterous and destructive as adults.  So my recommendation stands to keep this species and all Spiny lobsters in dedicated aquaria. As they grow, the Spiny lobster will begin feeding indiscriminately with a seemingly bottomless stomach, and should be fed various meats of a marine origin.  P. Versicolor too, appreciated overhangs and caves in which to hide though they are commonly seen borrowing pits into the substrate in which they take refuge.  Overall in the right set up the Blue Spiny lobster is quite hardy, has lots of personality and in general is just a fun pet.  As they adjust to captive life they can be coaxed into exploring their environment during daylight hours. 

P. ornatus:                  The Ornate Spiny Lobster has quite a large distribution in comparison to some of it's cousins, ranging from the Red Sea, all the way down to Africa and is a common sight in may Western Pacific islands.  This specimen is quite boisterous and very bold.  The will ruthlessly defend territory.  Though lobsters are destructive in general the Ornate takes the meaning to a whole new level.  This species is yet another tank buster with a potential length of 24'.  They are best kept as single specimens. 

P. guttatus:                 The Spotted Spiny lobster is quite a handsome specimen and aesthetically, my favorite of the genus.  This is one of the few Spiny lobsters that you will find in association with sessile invertebrates. It's quite common to see the Spotted Spiny tanking refuge amongst the overhang of coral rather than a rocky cave.  They also appear to be somewhat more reserve and cautious than other Spiny Lobsters; this is one specimen that will be quite difficult to coax out in daytime hours.  Their potential size is somewhat more manageable at 20', though 12' and 16' is quite common. 

P. penicillatus:            Another Panulirus that is often called the Blue Spiny Lobster or Hawaiian Blue Lobster, this is another specimen that is routinely available in the aquarium trade.  Though they are not indigenous, they are most common in the Hawaiian Islands and thus fall subject to same laws as P. marginatus. The laws are however, just, this animal has been irresponsibly over-fished.  Behavior is very similar to that of P. versicolor, but this specimen comes in a slightly more agreeable size with adults rarely growing to 15' in length. 

P. argus:                     Commonly known as the Caribbean or Florida spiny lobster this animal as it's name suggest hails from the sub-tropical Atlantic, even as far the Gulf of Mexico.  This to is quite an attractive specimen with a striped body that flaunts colors such as brown, gray and even some yellow pigmentation.  They favor more of the predator side of the spectrum than the scavenger detail, commonly hunting sea urchins, and mollusks, other crustaceans, bivalves and even the occasional fish.  Studies of carcasses have revealed a significant amount of vegetable matter in the stomach, so some sort of plant matter should supplement its mostly carnivorous diet.  Like P. Ornatus this specimen can be quite bold and aggressive, tank mates are once again, not advised.  

Market Lobsters:          Yes I admit the phrase market lobster is neither scientific, nor very specific but, believe it or not, I have seen aquarists contemplating purchasing such animals for their aquariums. The most commonly offered Spiny Lobsters for food fair (for those in the United States) are P. gracilis, P. Interuptus and those labeled as 'Main Spiny Lobsters.'  These animals are temperate to VERY cold water and would thus need a heavily chilled system. They will not adapt to a tropical environment no matter how long you acclimate them to such.  My advise, leave them on the dinner plate.

The Lobster System! 

            Now here comes the fun part. Once you've decided that Spiny lobsters are just so'¦neat that you can't live without them, it's time to design an appropriate set up. 

Choosing a Tank.

            As I am sure you have surmised, these animals need quite large tanks, surface area is of optimal importance.  Generally speaking an ideal set-up would have the width of the tank being at least 1.5 times, or even better, twice the length of the animal. The length of the tank should be at least four times the length of the specimen. Height is not of much importance, obviously enough water is necessary to cover the animal but lobsters so quite well lagoon style and tidal set-ups. I would prefer to see rounded or curved edges than tank with corners, for the ease of the animal. It is unfortunate that most tanks favor 'show' height but if this is all that is available these sizes can be acceptable for some specimens, obviously larger specimens need larger quarters:

*100 Gallon Regular:    48' x 24' x 20'

*150 Gallon:                 60' x 24' x 24'

*150 Gallon Long:        72' x 24' x 24'

*180 gallon:                  72' x 24' x 24'

*200 gallon:                  96' x 24'x  20' 

Not so Standard Tank sizes that would be ideal: (Gallon estimates are aprox.)

*135 gallon:                  48' x 36' x 18'

*170 gallon                  60' x 36' x 18'

*180 gallon:                  48' x 48' x 18' 

For those tank busting specimens reaching over 24': 

*480 gallon:                  96' x 48' x 24' 


            As I mentioned earlier the waste produced by a lobster can rival that of larger predatory fish such as triggers and groupers. While lobsters in general are a hardy lot, they are still invertebrates and water conditions need to be kept pristine at all times.  Thus the systems they are kept in should be able to keep the nutrients in check. The systems water volume should over turn ten times per hour at a minimum with more turnovers being preferable. An oversized and efficient protein skimmer is also a must have in the lobster system.  I would also consider employing the use of a macro-algae refugium as an alternate utility for nutrient export.  


            In a dedicated species only tank there should be no need for high intensity lighting and nearly anything will do.  Normal Output fluorescence are more than sufficient but if you want to bring out the colors in your specimen, Very High Output fluorescence would be my aesthetic choice.  Since lobsters are nocturnal I would use higher Kelvin lighting (14,000k to 20,000k) to make the specimen comfortable and possibly encourage daytime activity. Another viable option for viewing these creatures of the night is utilizing a low wattage red light or l.e.d. moonlight.

Temperature Controller: 

            Depending on the needs of the individual specimen you keep, and the ambient temperature where the system is being held, heaters and/or chillers may be necessary to keep the water at the desired temperature.  As with any aquarium specimen the proper temperature for the animal should be targeted and held stable to the best of the owner's ability. 

Live Rock, Aquarium Décor and Substrate 

                As beautiful and as majestic as these creatures may appear on the outside, inside lies a clumsy and destructive (whether it be on purpose or not) animal.  Lobsters also need a lot of surface area on which to roam, this is why décor and live rock should be kept to a minimum.  Furthermore any type of structures such as caves or overhangs should be stabilized with some type of media, such as a P.V.C. frame or epoxy.  Any loose items or structures could be easily toppled and you could possibly end up with a crushed lobster. Furthermore, post molting lobsters are quite sensitive and vulnerable, sharp protruding objects should be avoided at all costs.  For aesthetic reasons I would design any potential hiding areas, caves and overhangs, to be viewable even when the animal *thinks* it is out of sight. With a design like this, you will be able to view the animal in intimate moments even when it is attempting to be reclusive. The goal is to allow the animal to feel secure but still be able to enjoy it. As for substrate many Spiny lobsters will often burrow into it to take refuge rather than going to the nearest rocky cave or overhang. To allow the lobster to perform this natural behavior the substrate will need to be quite deep, around 6'. The lobsters will also perform more coarse media and not the oolitic sand, which has become so useful and popular for employment in Reef Aquaria. With the coarse media and the Lobsters burrowing capabilities a 'true' Deep Sand Bed will become difficult to maintain in the display.  In fact unlike the Deep Sand Beds utilized in reef aquaria I recommend weekly cleaning and vacuuming of the substrate to deter detritus accumulation. Should you wish to employ a Deep Sand Bed, I suggest doing so in dedicated refugia. On the same note, since décor must also be kept at a minimum you can also place any extra live rock in the refugia as well to serve as breeding grounds for beneficial microfauna and nitrifying bacteria. 

System Maintenance 

As with anything, including yourself, regular maintenance is key in keeping things stable and running smoothly.  The tanks parameters should be kept at N.S.W. or near sea water conditions. Weekly or more often testing of the water parameters is mandatory. As I'm sure you know Ammonia and nitrites should always be at zero. Since a lobster is an invertebrate you should attempt to keep nitrates as close to zero as possible, though a level of 10 PPM of NO3 is acceptable. The pH should also be kept stable between 8.2 and 8.4; you can make this easier my maintaining high calcium levels (300ppm to 450ppm) and proper alkalinity levels between 8 and 12 dKH. In conjunction tot he filtration system mentioned above weekly water changes should be preformed as well as siphoning/vacuuming detritus from décor, rockwork and substrate.  Salinity should also be maintained at NSW conditions, stabilized between 1.024 and 1.025.  

General Lobster Care and Feeding 

Aside from the standard necessities, time and effort involved in keeping a marine aquarium, here are some special notes as far as lobster cares. As with all crustaceans, lobsters go through the process of ecdydsis (molting); they must shed their exoskeleton in order to grow.  To encourage and help this process crustaceans appreciate some iodine. Most of the needed iodine can be gathered by feeding a diet of meats from a marine origin, though occasionally soaking the foods in an iodine solution is not a bad idea.  Do not immediately remove the abandoned exoskeleton as the specimen may attempt to consume it to some degree. Consuming their 'old-home' may be a way for them to regain lost calcium and various nutrients loss during the process. The process of molting, which is often taken for granted by aquarists, is quite stressful on the animal, honestly its amazing that they even make it from a planktonic pelagic stage to the monsters we see them as.  As for diet Lobsters are, as if you have not heard this enough, indiscriminate omnivores. As such lobsters should be treated to a LARGE variety of food. Plan to keep at least five to six different foods on hand at all times and alternate between them. Utilize meat of a marine origin, including but not limited to; fresh market fish, scallops, clams, oysters, shrimp, krill and squid. As far as vegetable matter some is necessary such as, spirulina, nori (dried seaweed), fresh algaes and even dry fair such as sinking wafers or pellets.    


            Hopefully this article has completely swayed your consideration of keeping a spiny lobster to one extreme or the other: 

1.)                You have decided that you cannot at this time provide the necessary home for these animals for a number of reasons, such as not being compatible with your already established system.  Either way you have made a responsible choice, and at least one specimen will remain in the ocean because of it.  Though like me you will continue to admire and study these amazing creatures. 

2.)                You have decided you are in love with Panulirus lobsters and cannot live without one. You have decided to set up the appropriate dedicated display for this animal and enjoy it as a worthy pet. If you have chosen this option, I envy you and wish you good luck. 

Obviously it will take a very dedicated or 'hardcore' aquarists to set-up such an elaborate display for a single specimen, especially with such a myriad of choices in the marine aquarium trade.  To each his own, maybe a Spiny lobster just happens to fit your persona.  Whatsoever you choose to do, be responsible and care for your animals to the best of your ability. Good luck to you and possibly your future lobster. ~  


Bibliography, Additional Research and Further Reading

 Calfo, Anthony R. & Fenner, Robert M.:        Reef Invertebrates 

Fenner, Robert M.:     Lobsters For Marine Aquariums? http://www.wetwebmedia.com/marine/inverts/arthropoda/lobsters/lobsters.htm

  www.marinebio.org      Re: Spiny Lobsters 

http://www.wetwebmedia.com/marine/inverts/arthropoda/crustace.htm , WWM Crustaceans 

Sprung, Julian:            Invertebrates: A quick reference guide  

Friese, U. Friese:        Marine Invertebrates 

Shimek, Ronald L.; Ph. D.:     Pocket Expert Guide: Marine Invertebrates 

Colin, Patrick L. & Arneson, Charles:           Tropical Pacific Invertebrates

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