Undark: If insects feel pain, should they be protected in research?

Image credit: David McClenaghan, CSIRO, via Wikimedia Commons

Bees have long impressed behavioral scientist Lars Chittka. In his lab at Queen Mary University of London, the pollinators have proven themselves capable of counting, using simple tools, and learning from nestmates. What really surprised Chittka, however, were the nuances of the insects’ behavior.

In 2008, for instance, a study from Chittka’s lab looked at how bumblebees reacted to a simulated attack by a fake spider on a flower. The bumblebees later approached suspect flowers cautiously and sometimes left even spider-less flowers quickly “as if they were seeing ghosts,” Chittka recalled. By contrast, the bees were seemingly more upbeat after receiving a sugar treat.

To Chittka, these observations defy a long-held view that insects are robot-like, controlled by hard-wired cognitive programs. Rather, the bees’ behavior seemed to be influenced by subjective experience — a perception of pleasant and unpleasant. Chittka said he increasingly suspects “there’s quite a rich world inside their minds.”

Early in his career, Chittka never protested when his colleagues opened bees’ skulls and inserted electrodes to study their nervous system. But he now wonders whether such procedures might create “potentially very unpleasant situations” for the insects. Like most invertebrates — any animal without an internal skeleton — insects tend to be legally unprotected in research. Regulations intended to minimize suffering in vertebrates like rodents largely don’t apply.

Some countries have already improved the welfare of select invertebrates, such as octopus, squid, crabs, and lobster. But there’s disagreement over whether other invertebrate species — a kaleidoscopically diverse cast of animals — also deserve protection. Some scientists believe species with relatively simple brains, like insects, or perhaps even those with no central nervous system at all, also deserve ethical consideration, although the details are under debate.

None of the experts who spoke with Undark argued that research on these invertebrate species should stop. Some organisms, including widely used species of fruit flies or nematode worms, have long led to breakthroughs in genetics, cell development, and other biological processes, and have played important roles in roughly a fifth of Nobel Prizes for Physiology or Medicine that were based on animal research. Many scientists are also shifting their research from vertebrates to invertebrates to avoid ethical bureaucracy associated with animal welfare regulation.

Still, recent research is prompting some scientists to rethink traditional research ethics. As Adam Hart, an entomologist at the University of Gloucestershire, put it: “I think we are at a point where people are willing to entertain the idea that perhaps ethics isn’t just something for animals with backbones.”

Read the whole story in Undark, Popular Science or in The Atlantic