Science! By Jan. 26, 2015 9:30 am
Lobsters really are cockroaches of the sea | Science! |

In recent years, there’s been efforts from groups like the United Nations to get people eating insects — that is, to get those parts of the world that aren’t already eating insects, to start. The biggest argument in favor of bug-burgers is sustainability; bugs can be grown with an efficiency matched only by certain food crops, like corn, and provide a source of protein with few of the environmental or ethical drawbacks of meat.

Many people were revolted by this suggestion, even if they imagined a perfectly abstract ground-up-bug protein bar  — but would these dainty citizens from the “front of the train” be so scandalized by an expensive lobster dinner? It’s certainly not sustainable, but new research suggests that there are at least some buggy species we Westerners find delicious, and they come exclusively from the sea.

This idea is actually the culmination of years of detailed genetic research, researchers reading and annotating various animal genomes to try to problem-solve their way back through evolutionary history. For a long time, it was thought that crustaceans and conventional insects had diverged a long time ago, and that similar body features like antennae were instances of species separately evolving along the same lines. This new, updated version of the tree of life tells a different story, and pegs modern insects as closer relatives to sea creatures like lobsters, crabs, and shrimp than centipedes and millipedes.

Lobsters really are cockroaches of the sea | Science! |

This simplified evolutionary tree shows the updated place for crustaceans.

This idea, that centipedes and millipedes were the last major evolutionary branding point from insects, has informed the search for a so-called ancestral insect, the first species after the final evolutionary split into what we today think of as insects. Working off of dogma, paleontologists have been looking for a primitive form that could have led to both mosquitoes and millipedes, when perhaps they should have been looking out for one sharing traits with delicious, buttery crab. Of course, this isn’t a totally new idea, and there are paleontologists who have spent years looking for just that sort of lobstery-sliverfish — no luck just yet.

It makes sense that at least a few species of insect would make their way back into the water, over the course of evolution. There are all kinds of bugs that live on or in the water, especially for portions of their lives, and with such an abundance of space some individuals were bound to find that they could live and reproduce more efficiently while there. This is much like the choice by certain land-based mammals to start swimming further and further from shore, eventually becoming modern day whales and dolphins.

Lobsters really are cockroaches of the sea | Science! |

These guys have less in common with insects than we’d thought.

So, does this make you more likely to eat insects, less likely to eat lobster, or neither? Does it, conversely, impact your feelings about popping a live lobster or crab into a pot of boiling water?

The thick slabs of meat you get off a good-sized lobster are a little hard to conceptualize as insect meat, I’ll grant you, but according to the most modern data it really is accurate to think of lobsters as ocean-bound beetles. It does go to show the simple fact that insect meat need not necessarily be a total deal-breaker, in qualitative terms; with the right life-cycle, it would be possible to create a credibly food-bearing insect species. A creature with the lifecycle of a lobster could never address world hunger or agricultural inefficiency, but it could grease the wheels and be a first attack on people’s intrinsic hatred of eating insects.

Now read: Screw succession: termite queen found to be genetically immortal

Lobsters really are cockroaches of the sea | Science! |


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