baudrunner's space: Do lobsters feel pain?
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Monday, January 19, 2009

Do lobsters feel pain?

There are conflicting reports from reputable institutions that have undertaken in-depth research projects which have studied the question of whether boiling a lobster alive causes them to feel any pain. Even the notorious Cecil Adams, of Straight Dope fame and who knows almost absolutely everything, appears to be fence-sitting on this one, passing on this particular assignment to one of his cohorts, Gfactor, who reports, "As a recent article on the topic puts it: It's debatable whether the debate will ever be resolved."

As far as I am concerned, we only pretend that the lobster doesn't feel any pain and will promote any source which agrees with that viewpoint, because we would like to continue to eat lobster without feeling any guilt over the cruel act of having dropped them alive into a pot of boiling water. I would prefer to have them saturated in vodka or rum before doing the nasty deed, so as to at least numb them. I haven't actually tried that, but then I am no great fan of lobster or crab because they are simply too much work and too messy, and in the case of crab, hardly worth the effort to get at the meat. I prefer shaved roast beef au jus on a kaiser myself, on the side.

I sit with those who believe that lobsters do indeed feel pain and gross discomfort when dropped squirming into a pot of boiling water. I have reason to believe this. The Atlantic Veterinary College has an interesting link to its Frequently Asked Questions site, dealing with lobster anatomy. On this page can be found a compelling discussion of the lobster's uncanny sense of smell...

Lobsters "smell" their food by using four small antennae on the front of their heads and tiny sensing hairs that cover their bodies. Their sense of smell is so fine that they can sniff out a single amino acid that tags their favorite food.
Now, that's very, very sensitive. So, it turns out that the lobster is a very sensitive and perceptive creature. Naturally, because of their different anatomy, they will sense things differently. It stands to reason that this must include their sense of touch. They no doubt have tactile sense, are able to perceive, and yes, understand, the difference between sandy and rocky sea floor. I can't imagine any lobster trying to dig out a shelter in a rock.

The conclusion drawn by most researchers is that if a lobster feels any pain, they must feel it differently than we do. Well, of course. Insomuch that lobster "smell" their food by using four small antennae on the front of their heads and tiny sensing hairs that cover their body, you can be pretty sure that these antennae and sensing hairs will feel intense "pain" when they are in contact with boiling water. That would be the same sense that steers them clear of the ocean's thermal vents, to keep from being boiled alive at the bottom of the sea, which to many would be a total waste of a good lobster.

That's not to say that lobsters are not found around hydro-thermal vents. Thermal vents offer a favorable (I doubt the lobster knows any better) environment for the Kiwa Hirsuta "yeti" lobster, a species of Squat lobster, which are only found in a region about a mile deep off the Easter Islands. They have evolved a tolerance for super-heated water, and as evidence that proximity to their food source is a valuable asset which contributes to their survival, have also evolved extraordinarily long, what appear to be insulated pincers. Obviously these creatures have a genetic predisposition to wariness and trepidation, acquired no doubt because their food can only be found in that zone around those hot thermal vents where it is most abundant, and where just a little too much heat would render the predator but a wasted delicacy. They are blind, a required sacrifice for the privilege of survival.

squat lobster

Some might argue that those feathery hairs on the pincers allow them to sense their food, but I am more inclined to think that they at least also serve the purpose of deflecting the waves of heat radiating from the thermal vents, to keep their heads cool.

Squat lobsters are among the most abundant decapods (which is what lobsters are). Among the largest of the Squat lobsters - only a few species are found around the hydro-thermal vents on the ocean floor - are the Chirostylids, with their extremely elongated pincers, which are thought to have evolved by way of competitive mating, but it seems to me that these creatures have descended from survivors of an era when the world was volcanically volatile, and the longer one's pincers were, the better one's chances for survival, lest one be exhumed by one's proximity to a spume of fatally hot geyser waters.

The specimen in the image below is of the New Zealand shallow-water squat lobster. Actually, that is a misnomer, as these species of squat lobster, called the Galatheids, of which he is Munida Gregaria, are found at abyssal depths. They are so abundant that their spawn produces a "red tide" at times. I can just picture this fellow reaching into a hot plume for some tasty morsel not quite out of its reach.

squat lobster

Their numbers, not just their adaptation, suggest that these particular creatures were around long before the Earth cooled enough for surface life to emerge.

Hydro-thermal vents offer a dynamic environment for the highly specialized life forms that are found around them. The actual temperatures around a hydro-thermal vent are subject to constant change. Tube worms are abundant in these environments, helping to serve as markers for the vent openings. A tube worm might experience a 20 to 30 degree temperature gradient over the length of its body. The actual temperatures where these tube worms live vary anywhere from about 2 degrees to 30 degrees Centigrade or more above ambient temperatures, while the plume of water rising from a vent opening is super-heated to much greater temperatures. Extreme temperature variations are a function for evolutionary environmental adaptations and appear very likely to have endowed the squat lobster with its unique ability to survive in close proximity to water temperatures that can easily kill it.

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