DURHAM — A University of New Hampshire professor affectionately known as the “Lobster Guy” has retired after 41 years.
Win Watson has dedicated his career to studying lobsters and horseshoe crabs. He estimates that he taught about 4,000 undergraduate students and obtained $3.2 million in grant funds to support his research over the years.
Watson says he started studying the nervous system of horseshoe crabs in graduate school. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 1978 and began working at UNH the day before he got his degree.
Watson said one of his career goals has been to figure out why lobsters move. He said they are mobile creatures that don’t stay in one spot on the bottom of the ocean.
“We put these sonar tags on them, and we could hear where they were, so we could track them as they moved around and sort of see the big picture,” Watson said while at the Jackson Estuarine Laboratory on Wednesday.
Watson said one of the neatest experiments they did showed that lobsters prefer water when it is about 60.8 degrees.
“If it gets too warm, they’ll move, which obviously right now has huge implications with climate change,” Watson said. “I can’t describe how it’s happening at the level of an individual animal, but there has definitely been a dying out of the population down in Connecticut and it’s shifting so that it’s great in Maine right now, and New Hampshire, but I don’t know how long that will last.”
Watson said climate change scientists are using the work he has done with lobster migrations as they work to predict what might happen in the future as the ocean warms.
Watson said another topic of interest which affects both the animals he studies and humans is the use of horseshoe crab blood to test for contamination on anything that might go inside the human body. Drugs certified by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration must be tested using the horseshoe crab blood, known as Limulus amebocyte lysate.
Watson is working to understand the impact of bleeding horseshoe crabs on the local population. He said about 60,000 of the crabs die because of the bleeding every year and he suspects the females who are bled don’t mate as often.
Right now, Watson and his team are tracking 28 horseshoe crabs and their behavior. Fourteen of them were bled.
“For me, at this point in my career, the question is ‘How can I help this species survive?’” Watson said of his work.
Watson said he officially retired May 17 but will be around until the end of December because of the grants and contracts he needs to finish work on.
Dean Jon Wraith said eight faculty members have retired from the College of Life Sciences and Agriculture this calendar year.