MarLIN

information on the biology of species and the ecology of habitats found around the coasts and seas of the British Isles

European spiny lobster (Palinurus elephas)

Distribution data supplied by the Ocean Biogeographic Information System (OBIS). To interrogate UK data visit the NBN Atlas.

Summary

Description

A large spiny lobster, growing up to 60 cm in total length, with a stout, heavily armoured body. The colour is usually orange dorsally with darker spines and white underneath but brown, sandy and purple morphs are occasionally found (Hunter et al., 1996; Hunter, 1999). It has numerous sharp spines on the carapace, over much of the abdomen and on the larger appendages. There are two long antennae and small hook-like claws.

Recorded distribution in Britain and Ireland

The main populations are confined to the west coast of Scotland, the extreme south-west coasts of England & Wales and the west coast of Ireland. See 'additional information' in Habitat section.

Global distribution

South and west coasts of the British Isles, South to the Azores, the western Mediterranean, Adriatic Sea and Aegean Sea.

Habitat

Lives subtidally on rocky, exposed coasts in the circalittoral zone.

Depth range

5-70m

Identifying features

  • Carapace covered with forward-directed spines; supra-orbital spines particularly prominent.
  • Antennal stalks very heavy and spiny; flagellum stout, tapering and longer than body.
  • Typically orange colouration but may also be brown, sandy or purple.
  • There are two large symmetrical white blotches on the tergites of somites 1-5, a single central blotch on the last segment and two blotches on the telson.
  • Small hook like claws.

Additional information

Also known in Britain as the crawfish, crayfish, spiny lobster or rock lobster, and the langouste rouge (red spiny lobster), langouste commune or langouste royale (royal spiny lobster) in France.

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Biology review

Taxonomy

PhylumArthropoda
ClassMalacostraca
OrderDecapoda
FamilyPalinuridae
GenusPalinurus
Authority(Fabricius, 1787)
Recent SynonymsPalinurus vulgaris Gruvel, 1911

Biology

Typical abundanceData deficient
Male size range40-50 cm
Male size at maturity
Female size rangeMedium-large(21-50 cm)
Female size at maturity
Growth formArticulate
Growth rate12 mm/year
Body flexibilityNone (less than 10 degrees)
MobilityCrawler / Walker, Mobile
Characteristic feeding methodScavenger, Searcher / forager
Diet/food sourceOmnivore
Typically feeds onEchinoderms, small gastropods and bivalves, microalgae, shrimp larvae, bryozoans, annelids.
SociabilityGregarious
Environmental positionEpibenthic, Epifaunal
DependencyIndependent.
SupportsSubstratum

Encrusting species such as Circeis armonicana and Spirorbis spirorbis (tube worms), Anomia ephippium (saddle oyster) and Electra pilosa (a bryozoan). Stalked barnacles have been recorded from the antennae.

Is the species harmful?No

Biology information

Palinurus elephas is more active at night, particularly with regard to foraging (Diaz et al., 2001; Goi & Latrouite, 2005).

Size
The male and female size range units used are total length (TL) although carapace length (CL) is the measurement usually used for fisheries management. Maximum overall total length is about 600 mm, although more commonly between 400 - 500 mm. In terms of carapace length, male and female sizes have been recorded to range between 85-193 mm and 79-180 mm respectively.

Growth
The mean annual size increase in females was found to be marginally lower at 12 mm CL / year than for males (12.2 mm CL / year) (Mercer, 1973, cited in Hunter, 1999). Other growth rate estimates suggest an increase of 2-14% CL with each moult (Campillo & Amadei, 1978) or as low as 1-2 mm CL / year (Hepper, 1977). Growth increments decrease as individuals approach their maximum size. Growth rates are also likely to vary with temperature, and Hunter (1999) suggested higher grwoth rates in warmer waters, although this is contrary to a review by Goi & Latrouite (2005), which found faster growth rates in the Atlantic than the Mediterranean.

Moulting
In Britain and Ireland, females moult in late summer between July and September (Hepper, 1977; Ansell & Robb, 1977; Hunter et al., 1996). The moult cycle of males in Britain and Ireland seems to be less clear. Hunter et al. (1996) reported that males have a moult peak in September coinciding with the female moult. According to Hepper (1977) and Hunter (1999), male Palinurus elephas in Britain and Ireland moult mainly in the winter months although Hunter (1999) also states that males moult throughout the year. In Ireland, moulting occurs from late spring to early summer (Gibson & O'Riordan, 1965; Mercer, 1973, both cited in Hunter, 1999). Moult frequency decreases with increasing age (Hunter, 1999).

Size at maturity
In a marine reserve in the Mediterranean, Goi et al. (2003) found that female Palinurus elephas were able to reproduce at 76-77 mm CL and males were sexually mature at 82.5 mm CL. This size-specific fecundity was considered to be comparable to a lightly fished population off Ireland. In Britain and Ireland, size at maturity is generally larger (see Hunter, 1999). In Cornwall, Hunter et al. (1996) reported the smallest berried female to measure 90 mm CL whereas in Wales, the smallest berried female measured 121 mm CL. The mean size of female, male and berried female Palinurus elephas in Cornwall was reported as 125.6,132.4 and 135mm respectively, and 155.8, 138.7 and 138.6 mm respectively in Wales (Hunter et al., 1996). Mercer (1973, cited in Hunter, 1999) found that 50% female maturity was reached between 82-86 mm CL in Irish Palinurus elephas, the smallest measuring ca 70 mm CL. Female Palinurus elephas are thought to be almost always mature by the time they recruit into the fishery (Hunter et al., 1996).

Mobility & sociability
Palinurus elephas typically crawls on the substratum but may occasionally be found to swim. Mercer (1973, cited in Hunter, 1999) describes the species as 'typically gregarious'.

Migrations
Palinurus elephas is known to undertake migrations to deeper water in the Atlantic (Ansell & Robb, 1977). Females move to deeper waters during egg development and return inshore prior to egg hatching (Goi et al., 2001). Males are also thought to make onshore-offshore migrations although the timing in relation to female migrations is contentious (Goi et al., 2001).

Habitat preferences

Physiographic preferencesOffshore seabed, Open coast
Biological zone preferencesData deficient
Substratum / habitat preferencesBedrock, Large to very large boulders, Small boulders
Tidal strength preferences
Wave exposure preferencesExposed, Extremely exposed, Very exposed
Salinity preferencesData deficient
Depth range5-70m
Other preferencesNo text entered
Migration PatternActive

Habitat Information

Only occasional occurrences have been noted from elsewhere and the species is now rarely seen in some areas where it was formerly (1970s) common. Records since 1950 have been included in the mapped distribution. On the south coast of Britain, the species is now only occasionally caught east of Lizard Head. In the past it has been recorded from around Plymouth and there are exceptional cases from as far east as Portland (Hepper, 1977). It is present around Lundy (Hiscock, pers. comm.), the Isles of Scilly (Hepper, 1977) and the Isle of Man (Bruce et al., 1963). In Scotland, the species is found up the west coast and along the north coast to Orkney and Shetland (Ansell & Robb, 1977; Kinnear, pers .comm.). The greatest densities are found in the southwest and become increasingly less common moving northwards (Kinnear, pers. comm.) Very occasional isolated records have been made from the east coast of Scotland suggesting that larvae can penetrate into and survive in the North Sea. This is presumably during periods when North Atlantic oceanic water intrudes further round into the North Sea (Hepper, 1977).

Reduced landings, smaller average size and general observations indicate that populations have declined considerably since the 1970's, in south-west Britain at least. Numbers in the Mediterranean have also been reduced (Campillo & Amadei, 1978). Reasons for the decline include possible over-fishing through use of more efficient capture mechanisms such as tangle nets. Environmental conditions may also play an important role (Hiscock, pers. comm., based on observations in Russell, 1973 and Wilson, 1951). Their presence only on coasts bordering the Atlantic suggests a confinement to oceanic waters (Hepper, 1977). Successful recruitment of decapod larvae may be dependent on incursions of more oceanic water (Russell, 1973).

The species is generally found in open coastal areas and offshore seabeds where salinity is likely to be full (30-40 psu). The typical depth range of the species is between 5 and 70 m (Ansell & Robb, 1977; Ingle, 1997) although it has been recorded as deep as 160 m (Noel, 1999). These depths will typically cover the infralittoral and circalittoral zones of the seabed. Although typically found on rocky substrata, the species has also been recorded from finer sediments at the edge of Zostera sp. beds in Salcombe Harbour (Marine Biological Association, 1957).

Several observations suggest that the species makes active annual migrations to and from deeper water (e.g. Hunter, 1999). The populations, at least off the west of Ireland, (except perhaps for large males), move offshore into deeper waters late in the year to over-winter, and return back inshore in spring (Mercer, 1973, cited in Hunter, 1999). Migrations may be triggered by seasonal changes in sea temperature.

Life history

Adult characteristics

Reproductive typeGonochoristic (dioecious)
Reproductive frequency Annual protracted
Fecundity (number of eggs)See additional information
Generation timeInsufficient information
Age at maturitylabile - depends on environmental conditions.
SeasonJuly - October
Life spanInsufficient information

Larval characteristics

Larval/propagule type-
Larval/juvenile development Oviparous
Duration of larval stage1-6 months
Larval dispersal potential >1000m
Larval settlement periodInsufficient information

Life history information

Fecundity
Fecundity in Palinurus elephas is influenced by the size of the female, with heavier specimens producing more eggs (Ceccaldi & Latrouite, 1994). Goñi et al. (2003) reported fecundity in a marine reserve in the western Mediterranean to be between ca 23,000-202,000 eggs. This is generally three to five times lower than fecundity in many other spiny lobster populations (Hunter, pers. comm.).

Reproduction
Mating is usually preceded by a 'pre-mating' moult which occurs up to four weeks earlier (Ceccaldi & Latrouite, 1994). When the female is ready to mate, she emits a specific noise (stridulation) which attracts a mate (Mercer, 1973, cited in Ceccaldi & Latrouite, 1994). The male then deposits a spermatophore below the genital opening of the female.

Mating occurs between June and October in the Atlantic (Goñi & Latrouite, 2005), and females bearing spermatophores have been reported from August to October in Britain and Ireland (Hepper, 1977; Ansell & Robb, 1977; Hunter, et al., 1996; Hunter, 1999). In laboratory experiments, Ansell & Robb (1977) found that eggs were released 7-10 days after the deposition of the spermatophore. As the eggs are laid, the spermatophores are usually torn with the claw on the fifth pereiopods (Mercer, 1973, cited in Hunter et al., 1996), thereby fertilizing the eggs. The first newly berried females in Cornwall and Wales were observed in August and, by January, 90% of Cornish females were found to be berried (Hunter et al., 1996). Incubation in the Atlantic is typically nine months after which the eggs hatch in early summer (Hunter, 1999). Hepper (1977) noted that eggs were laid in late summer / autumn in Cornwall and hatched the following spring / early summer. Most eggs have hatched by June in Wales and Cornwall (Hunter et al., 1996). In Scotland, hatching was thought to have occurred in April and May (Ansell & Robb, 1977). There is only one clutch per year.

In the Mediterranean population, incubation lasts for only five months, probably reflecting warmer water temperatures (Hunter, 1999). The pueruli were found to settle between June and July in the western Mediterranean spending about five months in the plankton (Diaz et al., 2001).

Sensitivity reviewHow is sensitivity assessed?

Physical pressures

 IntoleranceRecoverabilitySensitivityEvidence/Confidence
Not relevant Not relevant Not relevant Low
Although removal of the substratum would most probably displace the lobsters, their mobility means that substratum loss per se is unlikely to adversely affect them and not relevant has been suggested. However, the act of physically removing the substratum e.g. by dredging, may affect the lobsters (see Physical Disturbance).
Tolerant Not relevant Not sensitive Low
The species is quite large and mobile. Smothering by 5 cm of sediment is unlikely to adversely affect adult Palinurus elephas and tolerant has been suggested.
Tolerant Not relevant Not sensitive Low
An increase in the amount of suspended sediment is unlikely to affect Palinurus elephas directly. However, over the course of the benchmark, and depending on local hydrographic conditions, siltation may occur on the rocky substratum on which this species prefers. An increase in the amount of fine particulates, although unlikely to significantly change the nature of the substratum over the benchmark period, may alter the proportion of different prey items available to the lobster. However, since Palinurus elephas are active omnivores, such a change is unlikely to reduce total ingestion over the benchmark period and tolerant has been suggested.
Tolerant Not relevant Not sensitive Low
A decrease in the amount of suspended sediment is unlikely to affect Palinurus elephas directly and, therefore, tolerant has been suggested.
Tolerant Not relevant Not sensitive Moderate
Many crustacea collected for marketing are kept alive to maximize freshness. Several of these can stay alive out of water for many hours or even days and Palinurus elephas has been assessed as tolerant to desiccation at the benchmark level.
Tolerant Not relevant Not sensitive Moderate
Palinurus elephas is sufficiently mobile to be able to avoid an increase in emergence and, therefore, is recorded as being tolerant to a change in emergence.
Not relevant Not relevant Not relevant Not relevant
Palinurus elephas is found sublittorally and so will not be affected by an decrease in emergence at the benchmark level.
No information No information No information Not relevant
No information was found concerning the tidal strength preferences of Palinurus elephas although it has been found in habitats with water flows ranging from very weak to very strong (JNCC, 1999). It may be protected, to a certain extent, from increases in water flow rate due to the their habitat in rock crevices, however, insufficient information was available to be able to assess sensitivity if such refuges were unavailable.
Tolerant Not relevant Not sensitive Low
No information was found concerning the tidal strength preferences of Palinurus elephas although it has been found in habitats with water flows ranging from very weak to very strong (JNCC, 1999). It is possible that extremely low flow rates may hinder passive dispersal of the pelagic phyllosoma larvae, however, for the adults, a decrease in water flow rate is unlikely to be important and, therefore, tolerant has been suggested.
Tolerant Not relevant Not sensitive Low
Palinurus elephas is found in warmer waters as far south as the western basin of the Mediterranean and long term temperature increases may have little effect on survival of British populations. No information was found concerning the effects of acute temperature changes on Palinurus elephas however. Tolerant has been suggested.
High Moderate Moderate Moderate
In Britain, Palinurus elephas is towards the most northerly limit of its distribution. It lives predominantly around exposed extremities of land protruding into the north Atlantic and, therefore, it is highly likely that long term climate change would affect its distribution (Hunter, pers. comm.). Decreases in temperature may result in a further reduction of population distribution in the British Isles. In terms of acute change, Crisp (1964a) reported that Palinurus elephas (studied as Palinurus vulgaris) held in the aquarium of the Marine Biological Station on the Isle of Man died during the severe winter of 1962-63. The water in the aquarium was supplied directly from Port Erin Bay which dropped to 3.5 °C (the coldest since records began 60 years previously). In light of the benchmark for an acute change in temperature (a reduction in temperature of 5 °C for 3 days), an intolerance of high has been suggested. Palinurus elephas reproduces annually and the eggs are incubated by the female. However, even if suitable environmental conditions permitted, recovery for larger individuals over ca five years old, would probably be moderate.
No information No information No information Not relevant
No information was found concerning the effects of an increase in turbidity on Palinurus elephas.
No information No information No information Not relevant
No information was found concerning the effects of a decrease in turbidity on Palinurus elephas.
Tolerant Not relevant Not sensitive Very low
Palinurus elephas tends to live in very wave exposed coastal areas but no information was found concerning the effects of an increase in wave exposure. However, it is unlikely that an increase in wave exposure would adversely affect Palinurus elephas.
Tolerant Not relevant Not sensitive
Palinurus elephas tends to live in very wave exposed areas and a decrease in wave exposure by two categories would result in the species being subjected to conditions outside its preferred range. However, no information was found to suggest that Palinurus elephas would be adversely affected by such a change and it is likely that it would be tolerant.
No information No information No information Not relevant
Female Palinurus elephas stridulate in order to attract males (see Reproduction). Noise disturbance may interfere with production or reception of these signals although no evidence was found to support this and insufficient information was available to assess sensitivity.
No information Not relevant No information Not relevant
Decapod crustaceans have compound eyes and, therefore, have quite good vision. However, no information was found concerning the effects of visual disturbance.
Low Very high Very Low Very low
Palinurus elephas has a tough cuticular exoskeleton. At the benchmark level, some damage may occur, for example broken legs, but is unlikely to cause death in the majority of the population. Furthermore, the lobsters are likely to be protected from abrasion, to a certain extent, from their habitat in crevices and in rocky environments. An intolerance of low has been suggested with very low confidence. Crustaceans are able to regenerate damaged / lost appendages and recovery is expected to be very high.
Tolerant Not relevant Not sensitive Moderate
The species is mobile and will, therefore, be tolerant of displacement at the level of the benchmark.

Chemical pressures

 IntoleranceRecoverabilitySensitivityEvidence/Confidence
No information No information No information Not relevant
Insufficient
information
Heavy metal contamination
No information No information No information Not relevant
Insufficient
information
Hydrocarbon contamination
No information No information No information Not relevant
Insufficient
information
Radionuclide contamination
No information No information No information Not relevant
Insufficient
information
Changes in nutrient levels
No information No information No information Not relevant
Insufficient
information
Not relevant Not relevant Not relevant Not relevant
Palinurus elephas inhabits oceanic waters that are of full salinity. In this habitat, it is unlikely to be subjected to further increases in salinity, therefore this factor is considered irrelevant.
Low Very high Very Low
Palinurus elephas inhabits oceanic waters that are of full salinity. Changes outside these conditions would probably cause migration to areas of full salinity. This abnormal migration may interfere with feeding and reproduction and an intolerance of low has been suggested although there is no evidence to support this. Recovery is likely to occur as soon as normal conditions return.
Low Very high Low Very low
Very little information was found regarding tolerance to oxygen concentrations. Ansell and Robb (1977) record the species as being not very tolerant to oxygen depletion although their work was based on a small sample size. A low intolerance, with very low confidence, has been suggested. Recoverability is likely to be very high on return to 'normal' conditions.

Biological pressures

 IntoleranceRecoverabilitySensitivityEvidence/Confidence
No information No information No information Not relevant
Insufficient
information was found on diseases to make an assessment. However, the species is susceptible to crustacean shell disease, which is characterised by brown spots that erode away the exoskeleton. These lesions are often found to contain chitinoclastic bacteria, and additionally Alderman (1973) recorded the presence of a fungus bearing septate mycelium.
No information No information No information Not relevant
Insufficient
information
Intermediate Low High Moderate
This species is taken both as a targeted species and as a by-catch from other fisheries. Intensive potting (creeling), diving and tangle or trammel netting for Palinurus elephas has contributed to a very substantial decline in population size since the 1970's (K. Hiscock, pers. comm.) and intolerance has been assessed as intermediate. Despite the fact that Palinurus elephas reproduces annually and the eggs are incubated by the female, the lack of recovery after substantial exploitation in the 1970's suggests that recovery is low. Therefore although intolerance has been assessed as intermediate, the overall sensitivity will be high.
Intermediate Low High Low
Palinurus elephas is taken as a by-catch from fisheries for other species and intolerance has been assessed as intermediate. The species reproduces annually and the eggs are incubated by the female. Suitable environmental conditions permitting, the population should recover within a few years. However, in view of lack of recovery after substantial exploitation in the 1970's (K. Hiscock, pers. comm.), recovery has been assessed as low.

Additional information

Palinurus elephas is more vulnerable to stress during mating and egg production (Ansell & Robb, 1977). No information was found concerning recoverability in Palinurus elephas populations. Although Palinurus elephas reproduces annually and the eggs are incubated by the female, fecundity is generally three to five times lower than fecundity in many other spiny lobster populations (Hunter, pers. comm.). Also, the current UK size restrictions on landing (121 mm) may not necessarily protect juvenile lobsters from being caught since in Wales, for example, the smallest berried female was recorded as 121 mm (Hunter et al., 1996).

Importance review

Policy/legislation

UK Biodiversity Action Plan Priority
Species of principal importance (England)
Species of principal importance (Wales)
Features of Conservation Importance (England & Wales)
Priority Marine Features (Scotland)

Status

Non-native

Importance information

Goñi et al. (2003) state that Palinurus elephas is the most commercially important spiny lobster species in the Mediterranean and North East Atlantic. In the North East Atlantic, it is a by-catch species where fishing has depleted its populations (Latrouite & Noel, 1997, cited in Goñi et al., 2003). There are peripheral fisheries off the south and west coasts of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. Landings from Scotland in 1998 amounted to 15.8 metric tonnes, mostly from the south west around Barra and South Uist. A considerable fishery existed off the Cornish coast in the 1970's but nowadays exists at much lower intensity. Landings of Palinurus elephas have fallen since 1997 from 42 million tonnes (mt) in that year through 19 mt in 1998 to 15 mt in 1999, 2000, 2001 and 2002 (FAO, 2002). However, these figures may not necessarily reflect the trend in Palinurus elephas specifically and no mention is made of catch per unit effort (CPUE). Total landings of Palinurus elephas in France have seen a downward trend with landings at 137, 128, 112, 104, 90, 44, 58, 59, 65 and 46 mt for the years 1993-2002 although again, no indication of effort is given. Reliable CPUE data are only available from pot hauled lobsters in the Welsh fishery which displays a dramatic decline since 1980 (Hunter, 1999).CPUE generally increases during spring to reach an autumn peak before decreasing again over winter where the catches are lowest (Hepper, 1977).  In Britain there is a >110 mm carapace length restriction on landings and sales (Kinnear, pers. comm.).

Aquaculture
The relatively short larval life of Palinurus elephas makes them attractive for culture (Ceccaldi & Latrouite, 1994). However, Palinurus elephas is notoriously difficult to rear in the laboratory despite hatching at an advanced stage (see e.g. Kittaka & Ikegami, 1988) and attempts at culture have been unsuccessful.

Protection
GoñI et al. (2001) studied a population of Palinurus elephas that had been afforded protection by the Columbretes Islands Marine Reserve (Mediterranean) for 8 years. They reported that catch rates in the reserve were conspicuously higher than at two unprotected sites. Furthermore, catch rates at one of the fished areas increased significantly after a six month closed season. The fishery that has developed at the boundaries of the reserves suggests that spillover takes place.

Bibliography

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  7. Diaz, D., Mari, M., Abello, P. & Demestre, M., 2001. Settlement and juvenile habitat of the European spiny lobster Palinurus elephas (Crustacea: Decapoda: Palinuridae) in the western Mediterranean Sea. Scientia Marina, 65, 347-256.

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Citation

This review can be cited as:

Jackson, A. & Marshall, C. 2007. Palinurus elephas European spiny lobster. In Tyler-Walters H. and Hiscock K. (eds) Marine Life Information Network: Biology and Sensitivity Key Information Reviews, [on-line]. Plymouth: Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom. [cited 20-07-2018]. Available from: https://www.marlin.ac.uk/species/detail/1145

Last Updated: 03/09/2007