©Joaquim Alves Gaspar

For ecology to stay ethical and maintain public support, we need to revisit invertebrate ethics in research.  With our recent advances in understanding invertebrate cognition and shifts in public opinion, an ethical re-examination of currently used methodologies is needed. In our article – ‘Keeping invertebrate research ethical in a landscape of shifting public opinion’ – that’s exactly what we aim to do.

Invertebrate Cognition

Recent work, particularly on lobsters, has raised questions about whether invertebrates can experience suffering. In lobsters for example, noxious stimuli can induce long term changes in behaviour, and these changes can be inhibited by adding analgesic. While these findings can be interpreted as evidence for pain perception in crustaceans, the question of invertebrate suffering is still hotly debated, and a firm consensus is still to be reached. But these studies, coupled with recent public concern about the ethics of large-scale sampling projects, highlight the need for discussion on invertebrate ethics in ecology research.

©Ed Bierman

Given invertebrate diversity, detailed ethical frameworks would need to be developed by experts with knowledge of different species groups. However, there are broadscale ethical questions that an overarching framework could address. These could include ethical concerns voiced about large-scale sampling and the associated bycatch (invertebrates caught unintentionally alongside the focal species). Both are areas of public interest and concern. These need to be discussed and addressed by the wider scientific community.

Large-Scale Sampling

Large-scale studies which collect invertebrates from the wild are crucial. They provide important data on invertebrate declines and are vital for conservation planning. There’s limited evidence that these types of studies have any long-term impacts on local invertebrate populations.

However, despite the lack of evidence, public concerns have been voiced about the possible impacts and ethics surrounding long term sampling. One study which recently was the subject of public backlash to large scale sampling was the 2017 Big Wasp Survey. This study was criticised for killing pollinators and off-target species. However, The Big Wasp Survey actually collected very little bycatch and, due to the of the project timing, had little impact on the breeding cycle of the collected wasps.

©Mark Chinnick

While large-scale, well-justified studies are crucial and must be supported, it’s also important to address public concerns about this type of work. Further research is needed to investigate possible impacts of different types of ecological sampling. There’s also a need for public discussion and engagement surrounding these types of studies. This will help to prevent a gap in expected ethical norms of sampling developing between the public and scientific community in future.

Minimising Off-Target Effects of Studies

In addition to developing public engagement initiatives, many researchers are also, where possible, taking steps to ensure they minimise any possible off-target impacts their study may have. Some examples of these steps include planning the timing of sampling to minimise impacts on the breeding season of the focal species, preference for methods with limited bycatch and investigation of  sampling methods which could cause less damage to the habitat of the study systems. These sorts of methodological changes may not be possible in all cases. Where they are possible though, they represent an interesting shift towards applying the ethical principle of reducing the number of individuals used and limiting possible impacts of invertebrate experiments.

Further Steps to be Investigated

There are a lot of other things that we could do to help make invertebrate research more ethical. One significant step towards the development of invertebrate ethics would be improving accessibility of bycatch. Doing things like sharing bycatch specimens or open access data sharing would be a great way to start. This could be scientifically beneficial as it would enable the study of off-target species collected in different projects. It could also potentially reduce the need for sampling.

Power analyses could also be encouraged by journals accepting smaller sample sizes, given appropriate power. This would reduce the numbers of invertebrates that researchers need to use in experiments. We also need more research into the speed and appropriateness of different methods of euthanasia for different systems. With this information, researchers would be able to make more ethical and informed decisions.

We want to make it clear that we aren’t arguing against research on invertebrates. We’re arguing for more research into and discussion around which methods are most ethical for individual study species. Further research and discussion on these areas will allow researchers to make more informed and ethical decisions and keep current work ethical in a landscape of shifting public opinion and the changing scientific understanding of invertebrate cognition.

To find out more, read our Methods in Ecology and Evolution article ‘Keeping invertebrate research ethical in a landscape of shifting public opinion