QotW: Do lobsters feel pain?

And how do we know?
13 February 2018


Cooked lobsters



Switzerland has now banned boiling lobsters live. Do they experience pain; how do we know?


Georgia Mills has been simmering down to this question from Steve.

Switzerland has now banned boiling lobsters live. Do they experience pain; how do we know?

Georgia - Lobsters don’t have brains so it’s reasonable to assume that they can’t experience pain like we do. But how can we find out for sure? Well to help us out, here’s Professor Bob Elwood from Queen’s University, Belfast…

Bob - Animals face hazards that cause tissue damage, and most animals have reflex responses to protect them from such damage. Some have also evolved the capacity for pain experience. Pain is an unpleasant experience that causes changes in physiology and behaviour and makes creatures more likely to avoid danger in the future.

Georgia - Let’s take an example: if you put your finger in a candle, the sharp burn makes you much less likely to do it again. This feeling of pain is an important survival tool. But, like Bob said, some animals just have reflex responses, like when a hammer taps your knee. This still results in them avoiding a fire but lacks the conscious awareness of the pain. So is there any way to tell which one is going on?

Bob - My lab has focused on whether responses of various species of gastropod crustaceans, a group including lobsters, are just reflexes or if they are more complex and consistent with what we’d expect if they do really feel pain. We have shown through the application of potentially painful stimuli, like electric shocks, that they experience physiological stress in response, rapidly learn to avoid the stimulus, and show complex prolonged rubbing of the specific site of the stimulus application. This is reduced by local anaesthetic.

Hermit crabs, given a small electric shock within their shell, remember that for at least 24 hours and quickly move to another shell if one becomes available. Many other decapods pay a high price to avoid shocks by giving up valuable resources. Finally, they make complex decisions regarding painful experiences and an electric shock might cause a hermit crab to abandon its shell, but less so if the shell is of high quality or if the predator is present, which indicates some kind of central processing.

Thus, so many of the expected criteria are fulfilled, it is likely that these animals feel something akin to pain. Although total proof of pain is not available for any animal, we should err on the side of caution when that is warranted.

Georgia -So, if you want a guilt-free lobster thermidor it’s probably better to be safe than sorry and ask for it to be killed humanely before you start cooking it. Thanks very much Bob for putting the lid on that query for us.

Next week, we’re reaching dizzying heights to answer this question from Matt:

If I fell out of a building I would die. But, if like a squirrel or a cat fell out of it I think it would be fine. So how big does something have to be before fall damage will kill it?


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