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How old is a lobster? Check his eyestalk

The age of a lobster, or a crab or shrimp, can be determined by counting growth rings, as is done with trees. But scientists aren't sure yet how old a lobster can live to be.

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Scientists have now figured out that growth rings can be found in the eyestalk - a stalk with an eyeball on the end. Growth rings are also found in gastric mills - the teeth-like structures in their stomachs used to grind up food.

(AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty

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For the first time, scientists have figured out how to determine the age of a lobster — by counting its rings, like a tree.

Nobody knows how old lobsters can live to be; some people estimate they live to more than 100.

But knowing — rather than simply guessing — their age and that of other shellfish could help scientists better understand the population and assist regulators of the lucrative industry, said Raouf Kilada, a research associate at the University of New Brunswick who was the lead author of a scientific paper documenting the process.

Before now, scientists deduced a lobster's age judging by size and other variables. But it's now known that lobsters and other crustaceans, such as crabs and shrimp, grow one ring per year in hidden-away internal spots, Kilada said.

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"Having the age information for any commercial species will definitely improve the stock assessment and ensure sustainability," he said after presenting his findings Thursday at a scientific conference in Portland.

Scientists already could tell a fish's age by counting the growth rings found in a bony part of its inner ear, a shark's age from the rings in its vertebrae and a scallop or clam's age from the rings of its shell.

But crustaceans posed a problem because of the apparent absence of any permanent growth structures. It was thought that when lobsters and other crustaceans molt, they shed all calcified body parts that might record annual growth bands.

For their research, Kilada and five other Canadian researchers took a closer look at lobsters, snow crabs, northern shrimp and sculptured shrimp.

They found that growth rings, in fact, could be found in the eyestalk — a stalk connected to the body with an eyeball on the end — of lobsters, crabs and shrimp. In lobsters and crabs, the rings were also found in the so-called "gastric mills," parts of the stomach with three teeth-like structures used to grind up food.

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