Post by Sarah Zielinski, The Salt at NPR Food (1/17/13)
Whether crustaceans feel pain is generally something people try not to think about while munching on a crab cake or a lobster roll. Few of us would like to think that our dinner suffered during preparation, but still, we can't help but be a little curious.
Animal behavior professor Robert Elwood of Queen's University in Belfast, U.K., starting thinking about this crustacean sensation after he met Rick Stein, a well-known English chef and restaurateur known for his fish-forward fare. Stein asked Elwood if crabs felt pain. "I thought it was a very strange question," Elwood says. And he didn't have an answer.
That's because determining whether a creature feels pain can be difficult. "One might assume with higher mammals that it's very similar to humans," says Elwood. But other, simpler animals, like crabs, are more of a puzzle.
That's because what looks like pain could just be a phenomenon called nociception, which is when a body reacts automatically to stimuli that has the potential to damage tissue. "It's quite possible that animals have the ability to act simply by reflex," Elwood says, similar to the way you might pull your hand away from a hot plate without being aware that it's hot.