There’s nothing more succulent than fresh crab or lobster straight out of the shell. And if you’re a pescetarian like me, you may have comforted yourself by saying, “It’s okay to boil those suckers alive, they don’t feel pain.” Prepare to have your security blanket ripped from your fingers.
According to a new study published in the Journal of Experimental Biology, crabs may indeed feel pain, and learn from it. Researchers Robert Elwood and Barry Magee experimented on common shore crabs at the Queen’s University in Belfast. Shore crabs tend to return to the same dark crevices or tunnels to protect themselves, so Elwood and Magee used this behavioral trait to test whether the crabs were responding to a potentially painful stimulus with nociception or actual pain. Nociception means a reflexive behavioral response to a stimulus that may help the animal at that moment, but won’t teach them anything about how to act around the stimulus in the future.
The crabs were placed in a well-lit tank with two dark tunnels, one of which was equipped to deliver small electric shocks. Ninety crabs were individually introduced to the tank three times. Crabs that chose the safe tunnel typically stuck with it after each re-introduction. Crabs that selected the electric shock tunnel tended to return to it a second time, most likely because it was familiar, but after getting a second shock they favored the other tunnel. The crabs learned from the experience of the electric shock, just as an animal would that experienced pain with a certain behavior.
If you’re sensitive to these kinds of things, you might want to favor the quicker cleaver-to-the-carapace approach the next time you make fresh crab. Or just pick up some tofu instead.