Spiny lobsters practice “behavioral immunity” to create safe havens that prevent them from contracting a lethal disease in the wild, an important finding for the $50 million annual spiny lobster fishery in Florida, according to a 2015 study co-authored by a University of Florida scientist. In the study, scientists showed how Caribbean spiny lobsters use a form of behavioral immunity in which they avoid infected individuals to prevent the spread of the PaV1 virus, which takes a heavy toll on their populations.
Scientists studied data from a 2007 massive sponge die-off in a 926-square mile area of the Florida Keys. Without the primary shelter of sponges, juvenile lobsters aggregated in high numbers in remaining shelters or moved elsewhere.
Scientists specifically surveyed the lobster population at sites where sponges died and sites where sponges survived. They measured the prevalence of PaV1 just after the die-off and for years after and saw no increase in the prevalence of the virus.
Researchers also introduced either a healthy or an infected lobster to other lobsters living naturally under surviving sponges. Healthy lobsters left and stayed away from dens after lobsters infected with the PaV1 virus were introduced, despite the scarcity of other shelters and the high risk of being preyed upon while searching for a new shelter. On the other hand, when a healthy lobster was introduced, the lobsters stayed in the den.
According to UF/IFAS Associate Professor Don Behringer, the combination of field surveys after the sponge die-off, experiments, and simulation modeling supports the hypothesis that spiny lobsters practice behavioral immunity and that it can suppress a likely marine epidemic.
Donald Behringer (right) shows FAES intern Mike Dickson how to tell when a Caribbean spiny lobster is infected with the lethal PaV1 disease. UF/IFAS File Photo