New Research Suggests Insects Could Possibly Feel Pain

When someone finds a spider in their home, a popular choice to remove it is to simply squash it. I always take spiders outside and let them go, but a lot of people give little thought to killing them.

It doesn’t just go for spiders, either. Insects in general have long been thought of as lowly and less deserving of life. Perhaps that ties back to our belief that they can’t feel pain in the same way we can.

Photo: flickr/John Verive

According to a paper from the University of California, it’s been commonly believed that insects don’t feel pain in the same way that humans and other aniamls do. The paper explained, “As far as entomologists are concerned, insects do not have pain receptors the way vertebrates do. They don’t feel ‘pain,’ but may feel irritation and probably can sense if they are damaged.”

However, new research suggests something else entirely: insects could possibly feel pain in a similar way to humans!

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In a new paper published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, three researchers claim that insects have control over a biological behavior called nociception, similar to how vertebrate animals do.

According to the paper, nociception “is the detection of potentially or actually damaging stimuli” and it’s associated with the feeling of pain.

Photo: Unsplash/Bianca Ackermann

While it’s unclear exactly how the relationship between nociception and pain works in animals (and insects), the researchers, Matilda Gibbons, Sajedeh Sarlak, and Lars Chittka, believe that having a descending control over nociception is synonymous with having a descending control over pain.

According to the study, descending control over nociception is important for survival, even in insects. An example the authors provided was that when in combat, an animal will continue to fight without being distracted by an injury (thanks to nociceptive processes). After that fight, the animal will be able to properly assess and understand the severity of its injuries.

Photo: Unsplash/Suzy Brooks

Researchers also found that insects have certain neuropeptides that could act as pain suppressors.

The researchers conclude in the paper that while it’s not proven that bugs can feel pain, more research needs to be done to rule it out. In fact, some of the evidence they found suggests bugs may feel pain and that begs the question: Should insects be afforded ethical protections in situations that could cause them suffering, like in farming and research?

Photo: Unsplash/Prabir Kashyap

It’s true, we’re still working to provide animals we know feel pain better protections (like farm animals and lab animals), but it’s possible we should be extending those protections and efforts to insects as well. It’ll be interesting to see what further research finds!

You can read the full paper here.

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