In the early 2000s, a television program accidentally forced New Zealand to rethink its treatment of crayfish: viewers were outraged that a crayfish was boiled alive on the popular show Masterchef.
Today new research is making us rethink our perceptions of the crustaceans — crayfish, lobsters, shrimp, krill, crabs and barnacles — by showing us that the creatures our chefs mercilessly toss alive into boiling water may have emotional lives.
Crayfish are More Than Our Food
According to the Virginia Cooperative Extension, there are 500 crayfish species, and 400 of them live in North America. Each year, 75,000 tons of crayfish “are farmed in ponds or trapped in wetlands” to drive the $50 million industry.
As commonplace as they may seem, crayfish are actually under threat. Their habitats are being destroyed by a number of things including dams, water pollution and foreign fish, to name just a few. In June 2014, The Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for “failing to protect four aquatic species from the Southeast under the Endangered Species Act,” and the slenderclaw crayfish was one of the four creatures close to extinction–but we can’t afford to lose crayfish.
Over 240 wild animals feed on crayfish and they play a vital role in the ecosystem, making organic material by chewing and crushing dead plants, essentially working as nature’s recycler. They are extremely sensitive to water pollution, and their health is a good gauge of how pure or polluted the water is.
Gauging Anxiety in Crayfish
As reported in The Independent, crayfish are also gauging something more human-like. A report, Anxiety-like behavior in crayfish is controlled by serotonin, published in Science’s June 2014 issue highlights that, like us, crayfish also have the ability to experience anxiety.
Anxiety’s traditionally been thought of as a mostly human, mammal and vertebrate thing, but that’s changing. The latest experiment led by a French team in the Science report created a deep level of anxiety for freshwater crayfish by giving the crustaceans “a series of mild electric shocks” for 20 minutes. It was the kind of anxiety that humans need medication to control. It turns out, so did the crayfish–in this case the tranquilizer benzodiazepine.
As reported in The Independent, Daniel Cattaert, a neuroscientist involved in the report from the University of Bordeaux in France, explained that anxiety and fear aren’t interchangeable because, “Anxiety is a kind of fear of the fear, and animals who experience it will display adaptive behavior to minimize the threat,” and that’s what happened with the crayfish.
The stressed freshwater crustaceans “flicked” their tails in search for an escape. Unlike the unstressed crayfish, they didn’t venture into well-lit areas of their tank; they lurked in the dark sections instead. After observing the different behaviors, scientists gave the freshwater crayfish the tranquilizer, and the crustaceans began to explore the lit areas, too. Apart from demonstrating crayfish anxiety, the scientific experiment also showed that crayfish have “clear decision-making” abilities.
Crustaceans Aren‘t So Different from Us
It is easy to think of crustaceans as so different from us that it can make some of us less guilty about exploiting, experimenting on, or consuming them. Yet, as Brain Connection points out, we may share a lot more characteristics than we thought:
- We already know that crabs probably feel pain.
- Crabs and lobsters show signs of remembering pain.
- Crabs might even use math to make their way back home.
- Lobsters use foreplay, flirt and court like us, for example the females seek the most eligible bachelor and will entice him with her pheromones.
There’s a lot more to explore in crustaceans’ emotional and conscious lives, and just because we don’t know everything about them doesn’t mean that we can ignore the facts we do have.
While we’re learning more about crustaceans everyday, as The Washington Post discusses, there are no legal protections for invertebrates because the popular belief is that they don’t experience pain.
At the moment no entity is voluntarily going to stop treating these sentient beings like objects: they are stacked one over the other, their legs and antennas are broken, and they are boiled alive–but we can put an end to their unnecessary and inhumane suffering.
Photo Credit: Niklas Morberg