A new study concludes it's unlikely that lobsters feel pain, stirring up a long-simmering debate over this question: Does one of the world's favorite seafood dishes suffer when it's cooked?

Animal activists for years have claimed that lobsters are in agony when being cooked, and that dropping one in a pot of boiling water is tantamount to torture.

The study, funded by the Norwegian government and written by a scientist at the University of Oslo, suggests lobsters and other invertebrates such as crabs, snails and worms probably don't suffer even if lobsters do tend to thrash in boiling water.

"Lobsters and crabs have some capacity of learning, but it is unlikely that they can feel pain," concluded the 39-page report, aimed at determining if creatures without backbones should be subject to animal welfare legislation as Norway revises its animal welfare law.

Lobster biologists in Maine have maintained for years that the lobster's primitive nervous system and underdeveloped brain are similar to that of an insect. While lobsters react to different stimuli, such as boiling water, the reactions are escape mechanisms, not a conscious response or an indication of pain, they say.

"It's a semantic thing: No brain, no pain," said Mike Loughlin, who studied the matter when he was a University of Maine graduate student and is now a biologist at the Maine Atlantic Salmon Commission.

The Norwegian report also reinforces what people in the lobster industry have always contended, said Bob Bayer, executive director of the Lobster Institute, a research and education organization in Orono, Maine. "We've maintained all along that the lobster doesn't have the ability to process pain," Bayer said.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, an animal rights organization based in Norfolk, Va., has made lobster pain part of its Fish Empathy Project, putting out stickers and pamphlets with slogans such as "Being Boiled Hurts. Let Lobsters Live." Group supporters regularly demonstrate at the Maine Lobster Festival in Rockland.

PETA's Karin Robertson called the Norwegian study biased, saying the government doesn't want to hurt the country's fishing industry. Robertson said many scientists believe lobsters do feel pain. For instance, a zoologist with the Humane Society of the United States made a written declaration that lobsters can feel pain after a chef dismembered and sauteed a live lobster to prepare a Lobster Fra Diavolo dish on NBC's Today show in 1994.

It's debatable whether the debate will ever be resolved.

The Norwegian study, even while saying it's unlikely that crustaceans feel pain, also cautioned that more research is needed because there is a scarcity of scientific knowledge on the subject.

-- Associated Press

Quick Takes

Slope style

If you've hit the local slopes this winter, you may have noticed a lot of Under Armour gear.

The Baltimore company, known initially for its high-tech garments for football players, has turned its attention to the skier and snowboarder. Two hot products are the Cold Gear Mock Turtleneck and the Cold Gear Action Leggings. Both are $50, and designed to keep athletes warm without weight.

Raphael Peck, Under Armour's vice president of product creation, says the company stumbled onto the mountain market almost by accident after customers asked for the gear.

People bought Under Armour for football and soccer, then started wearing the stuff beneath their ski parkas, Peck says.

Today, the company's Cold Gear generates 30 percent of sales. That may be the tip of the iceberg. More skiing apparel is on the drawing board: a Cold Gear Striker Quarter-Zip and a Microfleece Quarter-Zip.

Bottom Line: If you splurge on Under Armour for the slopes, you'll look hip -- better yet, you'll stay warm. -- Mary Beth Regan

Did you know...

Costochondritis -- the most common cause of chest pain originating in the chest wall, not in the heart -- is an inflammation of the cartilage that connects a rib to the breastbone (sternum). It can be felt as sharp, fleeting pain or a dull ache that persists for days.

-- Mayo Clinic

In Brief

Doctors' experience vs. training

Do age and experience make a better doctor? Not necessarily, according to a Harvard Medical School study. Researchers there concluded that as a group, older doctors know less, provide lower-quality care and may expose patients to greater risks than physicians recently out of medical school.

Analyzing nearly 40 years of research into forces that shape health care quality, researchers cited a study showing that heart-attack patients were 10 percent more likely to die in the care of a doctor 20 years out of medical school compared with a recent graduate. The study appeared in this week's issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine.

Older doctors have long complained that it can be a challenge to keep pace with the rapid increase in medical knowledge; they're already pressed for time to see all their patients. In an editorial accompanying the new study, officials of the American College of Physicians and American Board of Internal Medicine concluded that doctors should be required to undergo more rigorous training to maintain certification.

"Practice does not make perfect, but it must be accompanied by ongoing active effort to maintain competence and quality of care," they wrote.

Pheromones and cockroaches

The discovery of the chemical scent that female German cockroaches use to attract males may lead to better methods of detecting and killing the pests, according to a new study reported in the journal Science.

The German cockroach is the No. 1 pest in U.S. homes. Researchers from Cornell and North Carolina State universities found that the female emits an airborne, perfume-like chemical, or pheromone, when she is ready to mate, then waits for males to come to her. The scientists say their discovery could make current pest control methods work better.

Geobiologist to be honored

A. Hope Jahren, a geobiologist at the Johns Hopkins University who studies links between living organisms and ancient climate, will receive this year's prestigious Macelwane Medal for "important contributions to paleoclimatology."

The award, from the American Geophysical Union, is given to scientists younger than 36 who have made significant contributions to the physical sciences. Jahren, 35, is the only woman to win both the Macelwane Medal and the Donath Medal for young scientists from the Geological Society of America. She received the latter in 2001.

"Hope Jahren represents a new generation of earth scientists who work across several disciplines to produce new insights," said David Veblen, a professor in Hopkins' Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences. "She combines soil science, biology, isotope geochemistry and climatology better than any other young scientist I know."

From staff and wire reports

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad