HomeScience & TechCephalopods Research and Ethics: A New Chapter in Animal Welfare

Cephalopods Research and Ethics: A New Chapter in Animal Welfare

In a pivotal development for animal welfare and scientific research ethics, cephalopods, including octopuses and squid, may soon receive the same legal protection as traditional research animals like mice and monkeys in the United States. On September 7th, 2023, the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) initiated a public feedback process on proposed guidelines that would mandate research projects involving cephalopods to gain approval from an ethics board before securing federal funding. This marks a significant step towards recognizing the complex cognitive and ethical considerations surrounding these enigmatic marine creatures.

Cephalopods: A Case for Ethical Research

The driving force behind these proposed guidelines is a growing body of evidence suggesting that cephalopods possess the biological mechanisms required for perceiving pain. Furthermore, cephalopods exhibit advanced learning and cognitive abilities, and they respond to anesthesia in a manner similar to mammals.

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Beautiful squid at Jeannie’s Glory reef in Bonaire

In the United States, research ethics for animals have traditionally centered around vertebrates, defined by the US Public Health Service (PHS) as animals with backbones. Scientists are required to seek approval from their institutions’ ethics boards before receiving federal funding, ensuring compliance with PHS standards. In contrast, invertebrates, which include insects, worms, and cephalopods, have not been subject to these ethical restrictions.

A Welcome Move for Animal Rights Advocates

The NIH’s proposal to extend ethical considerations to cephalopods has been welcomed by animal rights advocates, particularly organizations like the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. They view this development as a significant step towards recognizing the sentience and ethical treatment of cephalopods in research. While these advocates acknowledge that the proposal may not be perfect, they consider it a noteworthy victory.

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Cephalopod researchers also support the move. Although the number of federally funded cephalopod studies is relatively small, it has been growing. Researchers are increasingly drawn to cephalopods due to their unique nervous systems, prompting a shift from more traditional model animals like mice. These scientists believe that the proposed guidelines will enhance animal welfare while simultaneously improving the quality of research.

Navigating the Complexities

However, some complexities remain in the realm of cephalopod research. Researchers like Robyn Crook, a marine biologist at San Francisco State University, highlight the intricate issues surrounding cephalopod biology. For instance, it is challenging to determine the effectiveness of pain relief methods, as there is limited understanding of how cephalopods perceive pain, and different species may respond differently to painkillers.

To address these complexities, it is hoped that the NIH will allocate funding to researchers studying cephalopod biology.

International Precedents and Standardization

Beyond the United States, several countries, including the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Norway, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, already require ethical approval for certain types of cephalopod research. This international recognition of ethical concerns has prompted experts like Graziano Fiorito, a marine biologist in Naples, Italy, to lead efforts to develop recommendations for cephalopod research care and management.

The European Commission is poised to adopt these minimum requirements into law, promoting standardized cephalopod care across the European Union. It is hoped that this move will encourage the PHS to follow suit and advance uniform ethical guidelines for cephalopod research globally.

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