Tales from the lobster tank

Whatever happened to the 2013 CHRISTMAS LECTURES lobster...?

  • Credit: Flickr: Heal the Bay

One of the most challenging aspects of putting together the Life Fantastic 2013 CHRISTMAS LECTURES was developing the demos – the essential hallmark of the Ri experience. Chemistry has its exciting whizzes and bangs – a reaction, it seems, to illustrate every possible theoretical point. Physics, too, has light, electricity, magnets – all tangible things with which to thrill an audience. Biology, on the other hand, particularly molecular biology, is much trickier to show off. 

How do you illustrate the drama and beauty of life unfurling during development when this process is so small and normally completely inaccessible? How do you demonstrate the exquisite accuracy with which DNA is copied into every cell in the body, containing all the necessary information required to make proteins that instruct cells to take on different jobs in an organism? How do you explain evolution? 

Microscopes help, models play their part and games can be great, too. We even managed a personal appearance by one Charles Darwin from “beyond the grave". But the thing that Biology does have to offer, it offers in spades. Animals, animals, animals!

What is it people always say about working with animals and children? Well, I have to say the children involved in Life Fantastic were nothing but a constant delight – always brimming with enthusiasm, fun and challenging questions.

But what about the animals?

During the course of the lectures we met dogs, cats, a goose, chicken, snake, clams, blind cave fish, sticklebacks, hamsters, rats, a tortoise, the wonderful naked mole rats, and our hero “model” organisms - C. elegans worms and fruit flies of course. All were chosen to illustrate a specific point that was essential to the narrative, and all played their part magnificently. There were some hairy moments - a back stage drama when a perfect food chain looked like it was in danger of establishing itself in the green room, a goose that looked intent on eating one of the assistants on camera, the possible no-show by the naked mole rats because they were engaged in an important experiment.

  • A goose makes the most of her 15 minutes of fame.

    A goose makes the most of her 15 minutes of fame.

    Credit: Tim Mitchell

  • Children from the audience meet a Great Dane and a Chihuahua during the 2013 CHRISTMAS LECTURES

    Children from the audience meet a Great Dane and a Chihuahua during the 2013 CHRISTMAS LECTURES

    Credit: Tim Mitchell

  • Naked mole rats share their secrets of a long life in the 2014 CHRISTMAS LECTURES.

    Do naked mole rats hold the secret to longer life?

    Credit: Tim Mitchell

But there is one particular long-lived sea creature, much prized by many a gourmand, that has the most exciting story to tell.

After the filming of the CHRISTMAS LECTURES, I received many queries about the fate of the very large lobster, featured in the third lecture. Here is a brief story of his adventures with us, and what he’s up to now (no, he did not end up as somebody’s dinner!), as told by our demo assistant Sophie Gilbert.

“On arriving at the RI set for the last day of filming, my first job was to ‘push lobster on Stage Left’. ‘Stage Left’ sounded rather glamorous, but I was a less sure about the lobster. I spent the first few rehearsals wheeling around an empty fish tank, but eventually the lobster arrived in a cardboard box from the local fishmonger. It looked just like Sebastian from The Little Mermaid, with beady eyes sticking out from the top of it’s head to stare at us all. The lobster immediately became the centre of attention: bidding had started, and numerous dinner parties were in the planning.

Being vegetarian, I can’t comment on the tastiness of lobster spaghetti, but I felt I needed to take drastic measures on behalf of the poor creature. The message was passed on: no-one was eating ‘my’ lobster. However, my strict edict created something of a problem - what on earth would I do with it after filming? I didn’t know anything about lobsters, what they ate, let alone the specifications of the water they lived in. Google was unconcerned - put the lobster in the fridge to keep it fresh, and eat it later. Not quite the solution I was after. Optimistically, I texted a friendly biologist, “Fancy a pet lobster?” The answer confirmed my fears: it was very hard to keep a saltwater crustacean happy and healthy. I was starting to think the poor lobster had met his fate the day he bumped into a fisherman’s pot on the Canadian ocean floor.

Unbeknownst to me, word of the predicament had spread. A few hours later I received a life-changing (for the lobster) offer from the Department of Zoology at the University of Oxford: they could take my lobster ‘as long as it wasn’t too big’. It seemed best not to mention that it weighed 1.5 kilos, just in case.

The lobster was rather more spirited than I was the morning after the last lecture, but luckily the friendly biologist took an early lunch break to be on hand to help transfer Lively into an icy, salty, soggy cardboard box (A.K.A. The Lobster Express). We had exhausted the Ri restaurant’s supply of ice (delivered to the lobster in wine coolers: no wonder it was getting worried), so I had to find 10 kilos of ice in Mayfair - surprisingly easy. There were two options when it came to getting him/her to Oxford: either I caught the Oxford Tube, a coach service, or I got the train. On the Tube, you are expected to put luggage in the hold, and all-in-all I didn’t fancy explaining that I had a live organism in a box the size of a border collie - ‘but don’t worry, it’s asleep’ - so I decided to take my chances with the train.

Settling into my seat, I set the lobster on the table in front of me. The box had started to leak. I glanced up to see I had sat opposite a very well-dressed couple in their 60s, who had started to eye me a little suspiciously. I hoped that the box didn’t smell. Or drip. Or that the lobster didn’t warm up and start to want exercise and entertainments… Thankfully making it to Oxford station with no awkward incidents, the lobster and I disembarked to catch a taxi. There were 30 minutes to complete the five-minute drive to catch Clive at Zoology before he disappeared for Christmas and the building shut down. No problem. I sauntered over to the taxi stand feeling confident: no taxis. There was already a queue six people long. For some reason, I decided it would be a wonderful conversation opener to explain what I had in my box: after recovering from the shock, people seemed delighted, peering inside to take a peek. Happily, a few taxis appeared at once - we were finally on our way.

I met Clive for the first time in Zoology reception. He opened the box: “wow, it’s a big one!” I nodded, a bit worried. Had my lobster found a home or not? Clive took it out to cut away the bands around the pincers; although otherwise confident in his lobster-handling skills, the moment the plastic was released Clive snatched his hand away immediately, using long-handled scissors to deal with the remaining restraint. This, more than anything I had read or heard, brought home to me how dangerous those pincers really are - able to cut straight through a finger. Finally released, the lobster executed a little wiggle to launch with a splash into his temporary tank, causing an ill-fated crab to scuttle for cover. As far as the lobster was concerned, it was home.

  • Sophie and Clive visit the CHRISTMAS LECTURES lobster in his new surroundings in the Zoology Department

    Sophie and Clive visit the CHRISTMAS LECTURES lobster in his new surroundings in the Zoology Department

    Credit: Sophie Gilbert

  • Charlie a few days ago – blooming and terrorizing all the fish!

    Charlie a few days ago – blooming and terrorizing all the fish!

    Credit: Sophie Gilbert

If it grows any more it will have to be relocated to the London Aquarium, but for now it is happily ensconced in the display tanks of Zoology - apparently happy and ‘quite feisty’, a new objet d’art for resident biologists – students and staff alike. It is also yet to be sexed: to my great honour, I have been told that if he/she is female, she will be named Sophie”*.

*news just in: Sophie is a boy!  He will be renamed Charlie in honour of the “friendly biologist” who helped rescue him from the Ri prep room.

Alison Woollard, audience volunteers and animal guests at the 2013 Life Fantastic CHRISTMAS LECTURES

Latest Posts