A newly-released study describes crabs behaving in a manner consistent with feeling pain during experimentation. The study has implications for the ethical consumption of seafood.
A study by Robert Elwood and Barry Magee published in the Journal of Experimental Biology found that shore crabs reacted to electrical shocks in a manner consistent with an ability to feel pain.
Ninety shore crabs were placed in a brightly-lit container and allowed to choose between two dark shelter areas. The crabs in one of the two shelter areas were exposed to an electrical shock. After a brief interval, the crabs were put back in the brightly-lit container. The same dark shelter area was exposed to electric shock again; when it was time for the third electrical shock to be administered, most of the crabs moved to the dark shelter area that had not been electrocuted. These results indicated to the experimenters that the crabs had deliberately chosen to give up their original shelter area in order to avoid the painful electric shock.
Almost all animals will respond reflexively through the process of nociception, which is a body’s attempt to cope with potential tissue damage with an instant response to stimulation. Mammals are typically considered to have an understanding of pain, while crustaceans are typically considered to be engaged in nociception when they respond to human prodding. Prior to the release of this study, scientists have maintained that crustaceans respond to potential painful stimulation reflexively rather than responding with a conscious awareness of pain.
The less-extensive nervous system of crustaceans in comparison with mammals further contributes to the general perception of crabs and lobsters as unable to experience pain.
While the experimenters assert that there can be no definitive understanding of whether or not animals feel pain, the results of their study indicate that the crabs engaged in a decision-making process in order to avoid the pain of the electric shock. The nature of a crustacean’s brain, and the potential for human-identified emotions such as fear and love, remains an area for potential study.
In a 2010 book, “Do Fish Feel Pain?” Penn State professor Virginia Braithewaite noted her own experimental results, in which fish were found to have significant levels of cognition as well as a clear proclivity for pain avoidance. Braithewaite lamented the widespread misinformation about fish cognition, and asserted that continual expansion of aquaculture necessitates a careful examination of the ethical implications of modern methods of fish harvesting.
The common shore crab species utilized by the experimenters bears a significant resemblance to the lobsters and crabs consumed by the public. For many culinary enthusiasts, boiling a lobster alive is a classic method of preparation. Elwood and Magee’s newly-released body of research will re-open the debate over whether the consumption of animal flesh and the methods of animal slaughter are ethical for a thinking populace.
Elwood recommends driving a knife through the crustacean’s brain rather than boiling it alive for consumption.