Caribbean seagrass is littered with infected lobsters — but the habitat may save the species

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The Caribbean spiny lobster Panulirus argus is under threat from a deadly virus. Panulirus argus 1 (PaV1) is found throughout the Caribbean, infecting up to 30 percent of lobsters in some areas.

Alongside overfishing, it is the biggest danger spiny lobsters are facing today. This is important because the species plays a vital role as both predator and prey in Caribbean seagrass and reef ecosystems. The annual catch of about 40,000 tonnes supports local fisheries and provides a food source for people across the world.

The virus replaces blood cells, eventually turning infected lobsters’ blood (referred to as haemolymph) milky white, leaving the disease visible to the human eye through their translucent abdomens. Once this happens, it’s usually not long before the lobster dies.

The virus is contagious and can be transmitted through direct contact, ingestion of diseased tissue via cannibalism and through water. This is worrying as spiny lobsters tend to hang out in groups.

Research efforts – including my own – have been trying to uncover more about the disease, which was only discovered in 1999. We already know that clinically diseased lobsters are generally smaller than healthy ones – but colleagues and I wondered if this might be related to their choice of habitat.