Published online 12 April 2011 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2011.229

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European directive gets its tentacles into octopus research

Researchers fear 'mammal-centric' regulation is ill-suited to cephalopod work.

octopusA strict interpretation of new EU rules on animal research could make experiments with cephalopods more difficult.MAURO FERMARIELLO / SPL

The times are changing for European biologists who work with octopuses, squid and cuttlefish. A European Union (EU) regulation on animal experiments will soon make them familiar with the bureaucracy that is already the daily routine of those who experiment on monkeys and mice.

The EU directive on "the protection of animals used for scientific purposes", which member states must incorporate into their national laws by January 2013, for the first time extends protections to cephalopods as well as vertebrate lab animals.

Under the rules, all scientific experiments that can cause pain, distress or lasting harm to animals will have to undergo ethical evaluation. Researchers will have to justify the use of animals by proving that no alternative method is practical, and will have to use all possible means to reduce suffering. Some research projects may also go through a retrospective assessment to verify whether their objectives have been achieved.

Cephalopod researchers discussed the regulation at the Euroceph meeting in Vico Equense, Italy on 7–11 April. "It's going to be a big change for most people in the field, and will affect research on many levels," says Paul Andrews, a biologist at St George's University of London, who was one of the organizers of the meeting.

Under the mantle of progress

Although researchers agree that the welfare of animals is important, they worry that the new regulation will mean more paperwork, and that it may even make some experiments that would be allowed on vertebrates impossible in cephalopods.

Typical research on cuttlefish — which can change their skin colour at will — involves studying how their camouflage varies in response to flashing lights or changing backgrounds. Such a behavioural study would not in principle require authorization, but a strict interpretation of the directive could argue that strong light causes distress to the animal, thus putting the experiment under the scope of the new rules.

Participants at the Naples meeting criticized the 'mammal-centric language' of the directive. For example, the text of the regulation recommends that analgesics and local or total anaesthesia be used to reduce animals' pain, when necessary. But researchers do not know much about how pain signals are transmitted in the nervous systems of cephalopods, and what effects anaesthetics would have on them. It is possible that such measures could actually cause more harm to the animal, or seriously interfere with the biological mechanisms being investigated.

"We will need new research in this area, so that our requests to regulators are based on evidence," says Andrews.

The greatest concern for cephalopod researchers is an article in the directive that states that, "animals taken from the wild shall not be used in procedures". Exceptions will have to be justified, and the capture of animals in the wild should be carried out by "competent persons using methods which do not cause the animals avoidable pain, suffering, distress or lasting harm".

Unlike the rodents typically used in biomedical lab research, cephalopods are difficult to breed in captivity. Researchers usually get their octopuses and cuttlefish from local fishermen, whose concern for animal welfare generally falls short of the directive's demands.

The long arm of the law

Currently, only Canada has such strict rules on cephalopod research. UK laws give special protection to octopuses, but not other cephalopods, whereas in the United States, research on invertebrates is not regulated at all.

Scientists say that it would be damaging to restrict research on cephalopods, because the animals have a unique physiology and cognitive ability, and are useful models in many fields. Presentations at Euroceph, for example, covered topics ranging from basic neuroscience to the biological basis of personality and consciousness, by way of robots and new materials inspired by cephalopods.

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Susanna Louhimies, a policy officer at the European Commission's directorate-general for the environment, says that the latest directive is necessary because existing EU animal-research legislation, which dates from 1986, does not reflect the latest experimental techniques, or take into account new evidence on how animals perceive pain and distress. She says that a changed ethical climate and increasing pressure from animal-rights activists were also factors.

"I do not believe any single line of research on cephalopods will have to stop," says Louhimies. But she advises scientists to get organized and ensure that national legislators take the specifics of the field into account when implementing the rule. "And they should do it now," she warns.

For the next three years, Euroceph's organizing committee will work to help researchers develop guidelines for their national regulators. "Whether people like it or not, this is not going away," says Andrews. For researchers, unlike the camouflaged cuttlefish, "hiding is not an option". 

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