19 February 2018

Once around the earth

Gordon Pennycook asked how far people have moved in pursuit of their academic careers. I’d never added it up before. I found an online distance calculator, and off I went.

From my high school town of Pincher Creek, Alberta to the University of Lethbridge for my bachelor’s degree: 100 km

From Lethbridge to the University of Victoria for my graduate work: 1,268 km (driving)

From Victoria to Montreal for my first post-doc: 4,732 km (driving)

From Montreal to Melbourne, Australia for my second post-doc: 16,755 km

From Melbourne to Pincher Creek, for a brief period of unemployment: 13,874 km

From Pincher Creek to Edinburg, Texas to start my tenure-track position: 3,476 km

And from Edinburg to an undisclosed location, where I am on leave: 3,090 km

Grand total: 45,295 km! For comparison, the circumference of the Earth is 40,075 km.

You may now judge me on my carbon footprint. I would hate to start adding in the miles for conferences on top of that.

06 February 2018

Tuesday Crustie: Know your Lamingtons

Canada has butter tarts. Australia has lamingtons.

But because Autralia is the lucky country, it not only has lamingtons as dessert, but Lamington as a bad ass crayfish:

I loved this description (my emphasis):

One of Australia's most unusual creatures, the Lamington spiny crayfish, lives there and has been known to startle bushwalkers by confronting them in battle stance, clicking claws and warning hiss.

It’s like this crayfish is trying to live up to this description of Australia from Douglas Adams:

Australia is like Jack Nicholson. It comes right up to you and laughs very hard in your face in a highly threatening and engaging manner.

External links

Feisty crayfish surprise in rainforest

Dessert pic from here; crayfish pic from here.

05 February 2018

The economy of crayfish

While searching for crayfish news (as you do), I stumbled across this description of the value of crayfish.

  • Crayfish are the most popular dish in China.
  • Crayfish support five million jobs in China.
  • Crayfish are a US$22 billion market in China.

Besides the size of the market, I am surprised because I am willing to bet that it is all invasive species, Louisiana red swamp crayfish, Procambarus clarkii. That’s what the pictures look like, anyway.

This shouldn’t surprise me, considering I remembered this from an article about crayfish in CHina from years ago.

This novel perspective on invasive species was perhaps most elegantly stated as we made small talk with a taxi driver in Wuhan. As we explained our research through an interpreter, the taxi driver smiled and asked, “Can they really be considered a problem if people eat them?"

Yet somehow, I doubt most people would be able to guess just how much money there is in crayfish in this one country. This page (dated 2012) estimates that in Louisiana, one of the biggest American producers of crayfish (hey, it is the Louisiana red swamp crayfish) :

The total economic impact on the Louisiana economy exceeds $300 million annually, and more than 7,000 people depend directly or indirectly on the crawfish industry.

External links

Crayfish was China's most popular dish in 2017
China's crazy love for crayfish created jobs for 5m in 2016
Louisiana Crayfish: Good, Bad and Delicious

Picture from here.

29 January 2018

Goodbye, Storify

Storify is shutting down soon. Which is a shame. There was a point where I, and others, were using is a lot. It was a nice way to compile lots of internet resources into a single coherent timeline.

This has some relevance to matters of scientific publishing. On lots of sites like Quora, I see variations of, “Why can’t scientific articles be free to read?” Heck, here are some:

Online services — like Storify — may contribute to the lack of understanding that publishing is not free, regardless of whether the reader pays or not. They make stories, it costs them only a sign-up information, and they wonder why scientific publishing can’t be the same.

People do not understand that services that are called “free” are only free to them, not free across the board. Someone is paying bills. Preprint servers get millions of dollars in support to keep them running.
Or, you have operations that are not able to make a go of it, and close up shop, like Storify is now doing. Or like Google Reader did. (That one still makes me sad.)

The closing of Storify shows one of the reasons “free” is not a good way to think about scientific publishing. “Free to read,” sure. But as much as I love me some free to user online services (like Blogger, which has powered my writing here for over a decade and a half), they’re not a good model for scholarly publication.

I am playing with Wakelet as a replacement for Storify.

Hat tip to Carl Zimmer for the news about Storify.

19 January 2018

Switzerland’s lobster laws are not paragons of science-based policy

What are you thinking, Switzerland?

At the start of this week, I saw a news story about new Swiss regulations for the handling and killing of lobsters. (Coincidentally, it came very shortly after this very good article about similar issues around fishes.) This started with a motion by Green Party politician Maya Graf. She wanted to ban lobster imports into Switzerland outright, but Switzerland already had a trade agreement with the European Union that ruled that out.

This is the short version of the Swiss law (auto-translated from German):

The lobster is better protected in the future

Lobster and other crayfish may no longer be transported on ice or in ice water. This is important for the import to Switzerland. All species living in water must always be kept in their natural environment - this also applies to the lobster. In addition, crayfish must be stunned before being killed. The usual dipping in the gastronomy not stunned lobster in boiling water is therefore no longer permitted.

Further information: Articles 23 (1), 178 and 178a of the Animal Welfare Ordinance .

 A Q and A document says:

New scientific evidence shows that crayfish are just like vertebrates, sentient and capable of suffering.

But it does not summarize what scientific evidence was examined and used to justify this decision. However, the Swiss website links to a document from the Australian Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), which implies they agency agrees with the material contained within. The RSPCA document does have a reference list of research papers, with the most recent references dating to 2015.

The RSPCA document is not intended to be a scientific literature review. But that it does cite scientific papers can give an impression of greater certainty and consensus in the scientific community than is perhaps warranted.

For context, and in the interests of full disclosure, there are very few research groups have published empirical behavioural data about crustacean noceiception. One is led by Roger Elwood, and another is led by me. There are a few other papers from other places.

First, two research labs is a small fraction of the crustacean research community. Even if those two labs were entirely in agreement about the data (the two labs have contradictory results on one effect) and the interpretation of those data, two labs should not be taken to represent a broad scientific consensus. A 2014 book on crustacean nervous systems and behaviour alone has somewhere around 30 authors, none of which are from the two labs I mentioned.

Second, the RSPCA document cites only Elwood’s papers. (In fairness, the most relevant paper I co-authored on this subject was in 2015, the same year as the newest paper in the RSPCA document. That paper may have been too new to make it into the RSPCA document.)

Third, not all researchers examining the data are in agreement, even those with expertise in the relevant issues. In her book Can Fish Feel Pain? (reviewed here), Victoria Brathwaite describes having long conversations with Elwood about this topic. Despite Elwood’s arguments, Braithwaite concluded that lobsters do not feel pain. Joe Ayers (who was an examiner on my Ph.D.) also disagrees.

Fourth, the papers cited by the RSPCA do not claim that lobsters (and other large decapod crustaceans) are sentient, nor do they claim that they suffer. The papers are appropriately cautiously worded, and say the results are consistent with crustacean pain. Elwood has said this when speaking to scientists. “Consistent with” means “not ruled out.” It doesn’t necessarily mean likely. But when speaking to the general press, Elwood has said lobsters probably feel pain. As quoted above, the Swiss Q and A goes even further and says lobster pain has been shown.

And thus do we move from “possible” in data, to “probable” in the public eye, to “definite” in law.

The specifics of the policies are also puzzling. It forbids lobsters from being transported on ice. It is not clear in my translation (“Direct contact with ice or iced water can cause cold in the animals damage arises.”) if this is because of concerns about “pain”. A paper I co-authored in 2015 that showed crayfish do not avoid very low temperature stimuli.

The law seems to require that lobsters and crayfish are anaesthetised before being killed (Google translates the word as “stunned,” but this doesn’t seem to refer to electrical stunning). But when you ask crustacean biologists how to aneasthetize crustaceans, one common answer is, “Put them on ice.” Even the Q and A recommends cooling lobsters before killing them. It’s not clear why cooling is recommended but ice is illegal.

I don’t agree with this article that mocks the Swiss law, saying:
(T)here’s no scientific evidence to support the position.

The material quoted as being from the Lobster Institute is, like the SWiss law, far more confident than the data suggests. The article pulls out the “lobsters have no brain” myth. We have known for more than a century they do have brains. Absolutely nobody knows what the minimal amount of nervous system is for generating “pain.”

I want to make it clear that the recommendations for killing lobsters in the RSPCA document are generally consistent with what I do when using decapod crustaceans for research. (IMage also shows up here.) The image at the top of this post shows how I was taught to sacrifice decapod crustaceans in a humane way. It is not the only way, but I think it is reasonable and fairly easy.

I agree with the goals of this law. You should be careful in handling and killing animals rather than careless. But it’s not a strong model for science informing policy.

P.S.—One interesting tidbit I learned in perusing the Swiss documents is that Crustastun (which I wrote about eight years ago; see also here) makes no equipment, according to the Swiss Q and A document.

Related posts

What we know and don’t know about crustacean pain
Crustacean pain is still a complicated issue, despite the headlines

External links

Revision of various regulations in the veterinary field (Hat tip to Taking Apart Cats on Twitter)
Questions and answers about lobster (PDF in German)
Humane killing and processing of crustaceans for human consumption (PDF in English)
Swiss ban against boiling lobster alive brings smiles — at first
Do lobsters feel pain when we boil them alive? (Contains earlier version of image I created from top of page.)
Switzerland bans boiling lobsters alive, grants other protections to the crustaceans
Lobsters 'very likely' feel pain when boiled alive, researcher says
Fish feel pain. Now what?
Science Pushed to Back Burner, as Swiss Outlaw Live Lobster Boiling
Another country has banned boiling live lobsters. Some scientists wonder why.
Switzerland rules lobsters must be stunned before boiling
The Swiss Consider the Lobster. It Feels Pain, They Decide.

12 December 2017

Tuesday Crustie: The river of woe

Surface dwellers, meet Cherax acherontis. Cherax acherontis, meet surface dwerllers.

There are plenty of burrowing crayfish in Australia, but this crayfish from the island of New Guinea is the first cave dweller, not just in the region, but south of the equator. That's quite remarkable, considering that the Pacific is a hotspot of crayfish biodiversity, and there are southern hemisphere crayfish in Madagascar and South America.

The name is from Acheron, one of the rivers the ran through the underworld of Greek mythology.


Patoka J, Bláha M, Kouba A. 2017. Cherax acherontis (Decapoda: Parastacidae), the first cave crayfish from the Southern Hemisphere (Papua Province, Indonesia). Zootaxa 4363(1): 137-144. https://doi.org/10.11646/zootaxa.4363.1.7

08 December 2017

Twice in a lifetime: South Texas snowfall!

Last time, I only saw the aftermath.

This time, I got to see it happen.


There hadn’t been snow in a century before 2004, and now twice in less than 20 years? This is crazy.

It started around 9:00 am, and ran for a couple of hours. It was big fluffy flakes that was coming down quite thick at one point.

I asked everyone I saw, “Are we having fun yet?!” Everyone was having fun. Everyone was happy. One student said, “This is the best thing that could have happened during finals!”

There were snowball fights outside the library.

Alas, it dod not last long. After a couple of hours, it had stopped. But there was so much snow on the trees, that as it melted, it sounded like a downpour.

Last time, I made a snowman. This time, I made something different:

A South Texas snow angel!

I can’t believe I got to see snow twice in South Texas during my time there. Today was pretty magical.

I’ve been inside for an hour now, and my fingers are still numb.

Related posts

Something wonderful
After the (snow)fall
Once in a lifetime