Recently, the EU passed a directive that will require all of its member states to follow certain guidelines when using any animals for research. This piece of legislation, passed in 2010, replaced an older law from 1986 on the same topic. Besides updating the ethical and technical aspects of the law, it expanded the scope of the law to include more species than the 1986 law:
3. This Directive shall apply to the following animals:
(a) live non-human vertebrate animals, including:
(i) independently feeding larval forms; and
(ii) foetal forms of mammals as from the last third of their normal development;
(b) live cephalopods.
The first question that comes to mind is: why cephalopods? The answer, it turns out, lies in a document published by the Animal Health and Animal Welfare Panel of the European Food Safety Authority – their scientific report revealed that they had initially considered “all invertebrate animals” for inclusion under the law, but ended up recommending that cyclostomes (a group including lampreys and hagfish,) decapod crustaceans (like lobsters and crabs), and cephalopods should be included in the law. They also noted that other invertebrates, like spiders, tunicates, social insects and amphioxus are on the “borderline” of inclusion – that is, they seem to be complex enough (in their behavior and their nervous systems) that it is reasonable to think that they could experience pain or suffering, but there’s not enough evidence to suggest that they do to justify including them in the law. In any case, the only group of animals from this recommendation that ended up making it into the law was cephalopods, with crustaceans being excluded despite the Panel’s recommendation.
The reasons that the Panel cited for recommending cephalopods seem pretty straightforward; cephalopods exhibit what might be called complex cognitive abilities, being able to learn and remember rather flexibly, have large complex brains, and have strong behavioral responses to a variety of stimuli that we’d call noxious. These points, and their relationship to the possibilities of pain and suffering in cephalopods, are far from settled issues, and there’s a lot of arguments that can be made about why they may or may not be adequate justification for including cephalopods in the directive. In a sense, though, it is too late for these arguments; the directive has already passed, and will be in force as early as 2013.
As one might expect, this whole shebang was big news to cephalopod researchers. As I mentioned a few posts ago, a conference (dubbed Euroceph) was called so that cephalopod researchers could get together and talk about what the new law means to them and their work, and what needs to be done next. And there is a lot to be done.
The directive requires that certain criteria be met when using any vertebrate or cephalopod in research: for example, steps must be taken to minimize the animal’s pain and suffering, the animals used should be (if possible) bred for the purpose of research by regulated suppliers and not taken from the wild, and kept in enclosures that “are appropriate to their health and well-being.” One might run into some problems in applying these standards, which have been used in one form or another for regulating the use of vertebrate lab animals for many years, to cephalopods; for example, there is very little known about to biology of how cephalopods might feel pain, and what the consequences of that pain might be to a cephalopod’s health and behavior. There are only a few anesthetics that are used for cephalopods, and since we know almost nothing about the (presumably existent) pain system of cephalopods, we have no drugs to give them as pain-killers – indeed, it’s hard to even know where to start looking to identify drugs that would work as analgesics in cephalopods.
Another problem that came up repeatedly at Euroceph was the requirement for captive-bred animals. So far, there have only been a few limited successes at breeding cephalopods in captivity – among these, the only real successes have been with cuttlefish. Even in this case, though, captive-bred animals appear to behave differently than their wild-caught brethren (which isn’t really a surprise, if you think about how different the two lifestyles are;) perhaps more troubling, captive-bred cuttlefish seem to lose their ability to produce healthy offspring over several generations, limiting the extent of captive breeding programs. For researchers who want to study the behavior of cephalopods as it might be relevant to their lives in the wild, there is “a fundamental scientific problem” with requiring the use of captive bred cephalopods, said Rogen Hanlon, a cephalopod researcher at the Marine Biological Laboratory at Wood’s Hole. ) “If you want the best model [of cephalopod behavior], you use nature’s fittest, and that’s what you get from wild-caught animals.” Having to use captive-bred cephalopods for behavioral research could require research conducted using wild-caught animals that has been relied upon for decades to be re-done with captive-bred animals; even after this, it would still be difficult to predict what this research would mean in terms of how wild cephalopods actually behave.
While the EU directive contains very specific guidelines for the care of common lab animals like rats and rabbits, it contains almost no specific guidelines about caring for or handling cephalopods. This is because, while there is a long history of requiring that lab mammals be dealt with in a certain way (ie. they must have so much space, be given such-and-such a drug before each procedure to reduce pain, be fed every so often, be kept at such-and-such a temperature,) this is the first time that the research community has been required to come up with a standardized set of guidelines for using cephalopods. This might actually be an advantage to cephalopod researchers – they’re in the position now to shape these guidelines themselves, since there are virtually no other sources of information about how it is best to keep cephalopods in captivity. Hopefully, with the help of forthcoming regulations that are tailored to suit cephalopod research in particular, and more research into the health and husbandry of cephalopods, cephalopod research will continue without too much trouble.
Thanks for reading! Here, have a treat.
Some more reading, if you’re interested: