She Studies Lobsters... Here in Israel

She Studies Lobsters... Here in Israel

A Lobster is Attacked.

As a marine researcher, Dr. Kari Lavalli is used to this type of weather. Inset, a lobster is attacked.When someone mentions lobsters, one usually thinks of Maine or Massachusetts or, more generally, the North Atlantic. But to associate this shellfish with Haifa? or Israel? Kari L. Lavalli is doing just that. She came on a Fulbright Fellowship to research these crustaceans at the University's Leon Recanati Center for Maritime Studies. How did this 36-year-old American biologist from the Midwest become involved in lobsters? And why Israel?

Lavalli, who hails from Detroit, Michigan, had obtained a B.A. in Bio-mathematics from Wells College in Aurora, N.Y. A population study she had conducted on whales had piqued her interest in Mammals, which she intended to study in graduate school. On arrival at Boston University, however, she discovered that whales were out and lobsters in! It did not take long for her to find out that lobsters were cool and extremely fascinating. With an American friend, Lavalli researched and wrote several papers on lobsters. Seven years ago her friend emigrated to Israel. Lavalli corresponded but was never able to take advantage of the invitations to visit.

In 1992, Lavalli gained her Ph.D. with a dissertation on The Feeding Mechanisms of Post-Larval and Early Juvenile American Lobsters. Two years later she met her friend in Japan, at an International Lobster Workshop, where the latter introduced Lavalli to Prof. Ehud Spanier of the University's Department of Maritime Civilizations. Spanier is a specialist in the behavioral ecology of lobsters. It turns out that lobsters are found not only off Israel's Mediterranean coast between Rosh Hanikra and Haifa but also in Eilat - and for a scuba diver, which Lavalli is (and certified), what could be better?
Although lobsters are not big business in Israel, it was certainly feasible to carry out research on these sea creatures at the Center; at the same time, she could be with her good friend and fellow researcher once again and, of course, experience Israel. In January 1995, Lavalli received a Fulbright to research the Relative Predation Rates of Three Groups of Lobsters in Israel.

The researcher, who has taught at universities in the greater Boston area, described her work. In order for her to conduct the study, she had to arrange for the Òaliya of two species - the claw lobster and the spiny lobster. These were imported from Italy, Ireland, and the U.K. It seems that only slipper lobsters are found in this area. It took just two weeks for the new immigrants to acclimatize to the local water temperature, and then all three species were taken to artificial reefs off the coast of Haifa at Tel Shikmona. The ten best lobsters of each species were used. Five of the claw and five of the spiny lobsters had their natural weapons removed. The Israeli lobster apparentl y finds no need for aggressive weaponry. All the lobsters were then tethered to stakes and checked after 4 hours and again after 24 hours.

The main predator of lobsters in this region is the trigger fish, Lavalli pointed out, but hungry octopi can also turn up. After 4 hours, the mortality rate of the unclawed claw lobster was 100% and that of the antennae-less spiny lobster 50-55%. The slipper lobster proved best at peaceful coexistence. After 24 hours, it had an 80% survival rate, whereas that for claw lobsters was 5-10% and for spiny lobsters 40-50%. Although retaining their weapons improved the survival rate of the two latter lobsters, the seemingly defenseless slipper lobster had a far higher survival rate.

Lavalli, who is not Jewish and knew about Judaisms dietary prohibitions before coming to Israel, said that her next research project will involve the shells of dead claw, spiny, and slipper lobsters. These will be punch-tested to ascertain the pressure strength of each in order to compare weapons versus armor. The three types of lobsters are of equal nutritional quality, and more research is needed to discover why predators have a preference for claw lobsters and why the slipper lobster, with no weapons, does best of all in the face of natural predators.

With the end of her 20-month Fulbright Fellowship in sight, it looked as though the punch-test project would have to be put on hold. Lavalli's scientific research and enthusiasm did not go unnoticed, however, and this past June she received one of the Maurice Hatter Awards for Research in Marine Studies, which will enable her to spend a third year at the University and in Israel.
She says she is not short of ideas. She will be able to enjoy more diving in the Red Sea, among other things, to watch in grisly fascination lobsters actually being attacked by trigger fish and octopi, which have no need to seek a Kashrut certificate prior to their tasty meal. H.P.

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