22 September 2018

Giving octopuses ecstasy

California two-spot octopus (Octopus bimaculoides)Nobody told me it was “Drug an invertebrate week.” But not only has a story of lobsters getting pot rather than going into pots made the round, now we have octopuses getting another recreational human drug. The story, according to headlines, is that giving ecstasy (MDMA) to octopuses makes them act more socially. And everyone’s comparing octopuses to ecstasy fueled partygoers at a rave.

It’s a nice narrative, but there isn’t enough evidence to conclude that.

There is some genetic analyses of MDMA receptors in this paper, but all of the interest in the press is about the behaviour experiments. The authors gave the octopuses the drug. The octopuses’ behaviour changed. The popular press is interpreting that behaviour in a cutesy way, using terms like “hug” and “cuddle” in headlines. (Even publications like Nature who should know better.)

That’s a problem. Octopuses hunt prey by enveloping them with their web and tentacles — effectively “hugging” them, if you will. Being eaten is rather different than cuddling. The authors provide no videos in the paper, just two still images (below), so you can’t see the behaviour in detail.

Photograph of Octopus social interaction under the saline condition on left and MDMA condition on right.

The sample size for the behavioural experiments is 4 or 5, as far as I can see. That’s tiny.

It’s worth noting that the behavioural changes were not always the same.

In addition, pilot studies in 3 animals indicated that higher submersion doses of MDMA (ranging from 10-400 mg/Kg) induced severe behavioral changes (e.g., hyper or depressed ventilation, traveling color waves across the skin or blanching, as well as catatonia or hyper-arousal/vigilance) and these animals were excluded from further analysis.

Dose-dependent responses are not at all unusual, but again, it makes the simple story of “MDMA means social” more complicated.

I do appreciate that this paper has an Easter egg for people who read the methods:

Novel objects consisted of multiple configurations of 4 objects: 1) plastic orchid pot with red weight, 2) plastic bottle with green weight, 3) Galactic Heroes ‘Stormtrooper’ figurine, and 4) Galactic Heroes ‘Chewbacca’ figurine.

But which Stormtrooper, people?

Which Stormtrooper?!

The paper is interesting, but it’s not getting attention from popular press because it’s particularly informative about the evolution of social behaviour. It’s getting attention because of the novelty of giving drugs to animals, and the “Oh look, animals are like us!” narrative.

Additional, 24 September 2018: Another interpretive problem. Normally, in an interview on CBC’s Quirk and Quarks, Gul Dolen notes octopuses overcome their asocial behaviours for mating. Dolen cites this as reason to think that there could be a way to “switch” the octopuses’ behaviour using a drug. So mating behaviour is the natural “social” mode for these animals.

But the octopus under the basket was always male, because the researchers found octopuses avoided males more than females.

Three of the four octopuses tested were male. (I had to dig into the supplemental information for that.) So most of the observations were male-male behaviour. I don’t know that homosexual behaviour has ever been documented in octopuses. A quick Google Scholar search found nothing.

A Washington Post story revealed that the authors’ wouldn’t even talk about some of the behaviours they had seen:

The authors observed even stranger behavior that they did not report in the study, Edsinger said. He was reluctant, even after extensive questioning, to further describe what the octopuses did, because the scientists could not be sure if the MDMA had induced these actions.

This is problematic. This suggests the behaviours in the paper are deeply underdocumented at best. And it seems to be done on purpose, because it doesn’t fit the authors’ narrative. This, combined with the description of behaviours at different doses, it further suggests that rather than “prosocial” behaviour that the authors and headlines are pushing, the exposure to MDMA is making octopuses behave erratically, not socially.


Edsinger E, Dölen G. A conserved role for serotonergic neurotransmission in mediating social behavior in Octopus. Current Biology 28(3): P3136-3142.e4. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2018.07.061

External links

Octopuses on ecstasy: The party drug leads to eight-armed hugs
This is what happens to a shy octopus on ecstasy
Octopuses on ecstasy just want a cuddle
Serotonin: octopus love potion?

Picture from here.

20 September 2018

Giving lobsters weed

I’ve been studying issues roiling around the question of “Does it hurt lobsters when they go into a pot?” for about a decade. After ten years or so, you get a little jaded. I’m used to seeing the same bad arguments. I’m used to it popping up and making the rounds in news about twice a year. The first time this year was when Switzerland put laws into place about lobster handling. This is the second.

And I’ve got to say:

That’s new.

A Maine newspaper is reporting on a restaurant owner, Charlotte Gill, is sedating lobster with marijuana.

I am pretty sure cannabis as a sedative not been the subject of any peer-reviewed scientific papers on crustacean anesthesia. But a quick Google Scholar search (thank you thank you thank you Google for this tool) shows that spiny lobsters and other invertebrates have cannabinoid receptors (McPartland et al. 2005). This makes the technique plausible on the face of it.

The behavioural effects reported were interesting.

Following the experiment, Roscoe’s (the experimental lobster - ZF) claw bands were removed and kept off for nearly three weeks.

His mood seemed to have an impact on the other lobsters in the tank. He never again wielded his claws as weapons.

I am surprised by the apparent duration of the effects. Weeks of behaviour change from a single treatment? That seems long compared to soporific effects of marijuana smoke in humans doesn’t seem to last multiple days.

Earlier this week, Roscoe was returned to the ocean as a thank you for being the experimental crustacean.

I’m not sure of the ethics of this. Will Roscoe the lobster, who has apparently forgotten how to use claws, going to become a quick meal for a predator? A lobster without claws in the ocean is just bait (Barshaw et al. 2003). Releasing Roscoe may doom him!

I am a little concerned by what seems to be Gill’s quick dismissal of other techniques:

In Switzerland, the recommended method of cooking the crustacean is to electrocute it or stab it in the head before putting it in the boiling water.

“These are both horrible options,” said Gill. “If we’re going to take a life we have a responsibility to do it as humanely as possible.”

I don’t know if she has anything but intuition to support that opinion. There’s research on electrical stunning, and the results so far are mixed. Fregin and Bickmeyer (2016) found shocks “do not mitigate the response to external stimuli,” but Neil (2012), Roth and Grimsbø (2016), and Weineck et al. (2018) found electric shocks seemed to knock down neural activity effectively. But the impression I get is that using shock is tricky: you need different protocols for different animals.

It’s also worth noting that a new paper by Weineck et al. (2018) showed chilling was effective as an anesthetic, which the Swiss regulations forbade. Research I co-authored (Puri and Faulkes 2015) showed no evidence that crayfish responded to low temperature stimuli.

Of course, another complication around this technique is its legality. The legal landscape around marijuana in the U.S. is tricky. Marijuana is still regulated federally, but certain states permit different kinds of uses. The article notes:

Gill holds a medical marijuana caregiver license with the state and is using product she grows in order to guarantee its quality.

This is interesting, but it’s not clear to me that this is a more cost effective or humane way to sedate a lobster than what many crustacean researchers have been doing for a long time: cooling on crushed ice.

Hat tip to Mo Costandi.


Barshaw DE, Lavalli KL, Spanier E. 2003. Offense versus defense: responses of three morphological types of lobsters to predation. Marine Ecology Progress Series 256: 171-182. https://doi.org/10.3354/meps256171

Fregin T, Bickmeyer U. 2016. Electrophysiological investigation of different methods of anesthesia in lobster and crayfish. PLOS ONE 11(9): e0162894. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0162894

McPartland JM, Agraval J, Gleeson D, Heasman K, Glass M. 2006. Cannabinoid receptors in invertebrates. Journal of Evolutionary Biology 19(2): 366-373. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1420-9101.2005.01028.x

Puri S, Faulkes Z. 2015. Can crayfish take the heat? Procambarus clarkii show nociceptive behaviour to high temperature stimuli, but not low temperature or chemical stimuli. Biology Open 4(4): 441-448. https://doi.org/10.1242/bio.20149654

Roth B, Grimsbø E. 2016. Electrical stunning of edible crabs (Cancer pagurus): from single experiments to commercial practice. Animal Welfare 25(4): 489-497. https://doi.org/10.7120/09627286.25.4.489

Weineck K, Ray A, Fleckenstein L, Medley M, Dzubuk N, Piana E, Cooper R. 2018. Physiological changes as a measure of crustacean welfare under different standardized stunning techniques: cooling and electroshock. Animals 8(9): 158. http://www.mdpi.com/2076-2615/8/9/158

Related posts

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

External links

“Hot box” lobsters touted
Maine restaurant sedates lobsters with marijuana
New England marijuana laws – where it’s legal, where it’s not and what you need to know

19 September 2018

“Best” journals and other unhelpful publishing advice

The Society for Neuroscience recently posted a short guide for publishing papers for early career researchers. It makes me grumpy.

Aim for the best journal in your field that you think you can get into, as a general rule.” This ranks right up there with Big Bobby Clobber’s hockey advice, “The key to beating the Russians is to score more points than they do.” “Publish in the best journal” (or its sibling, “Strive for excellence”) is incredibly unhelpful for new researchers, because they don’t know the lay of the publishing landscape. They will rightfully ask how to recognize “best” journals. In academia, notions of “best” are often highly subjective and have more to do with tradition than actual data. This tweet led me to this article:

When Elfin was first charged with creating a ranking system, he seems to have known that the only believable methodology would be one that confirmed the prejudices of the meritocracy: The schools that the most prestigious journalists and their friends had gone to would have to come out on top. The first time that the staff had drafted up a numerical ranking system to test internally–a formula that, most controversially, awarded points for diversity–a college that Elfin cannot even remember the name of came out on top. He told me: “When you’re picking the most valuable player in baseball and a utility player hitting .220 comes up as the MVP, it’s not right.”

Elfin subsequently removed the first statistician who had created the algorithm and brought in Morse, a statistician with very limited educational reporting experience. Morse rewrote the algorithm and ran it through the computers. Yale came out on top, and Elfin accepted this more persuasive formula. At the time, there was internal debate about whether the methodology was as good as it could be. According to Lucia Solorzano, who helped create the original U.S. News rankings in 1983, worked on the guide until 1988, and now edits Barron’s Best Buys in College Education, “It’s a college guide and the minute you start to have people in charge of it who have little understanding of education, you’re asking for trouble.”

To Elfin, however, who has a Harvard master’s diploma on his wall, there’s a kind of circular logic to it all: The schools that the conventional wisdom of the meritocracy regards as the best, are in fact the best–as confirmed by the methodology, itself conclusively ratified by the presence of the most prestigious schools at the top of the list. In 1997, he told The New York Times: “We’ve produced a list that puts Harvard, Yale and Princeton, in whatever order, at the top. This is a nutty list? Something we pulled out of the sky?”

When people talk about “best” journals, this almost always ends up being code for Impact Factor. The article mentions these second.

Consider impact factors, but don’t obsess over the number. There are many excellent medical and biomedical specialty journals considered top tier in their fields that have relatively low impact factors. Don’t let the impact factor be your only data point when deciding where to send your paper.” This gives me another chance to point to articles about the problems of this measure, like this and this. It’s so flawed that authors should think about it as little as possible.

Look at the masthead. Are the people listed on the editorial team who you want reading your paper? Do they represent your target readership?” This is deeply unhelpful to new researchers. New researchers do not know the lay of the land and probably are not going to recognize most of the people on editorial boards. Recognizing that network takes time and experience.

Read the aims and scope. Does the journal’s focus align well with your submission?” Finally, a good piece of advice. I would have put this first, not fourth.

Do you and/or your university care whether you publish in open-access journals? Some institutions will put a high value on an open-access paper, so don’t underestimate the importance of this preference.” Again, probably unhelpful for early career researchers. Doctoral students and post-docs may very well change what institutions they are affiliated with, maybe multiple times.

Is your research ready to be published? Do you have a compelling and complete story to tell? While there is a great deal of pressure to publish frequently, don’t slice and dice your research into many small pieces. Consider the least publishable unit, and make sure yours is not too small to be meaningful.” I’m kind of godsmacked that “Check to see if it’s done” is presented as advice. The notion of a “complete story” is deeply problematic. The data don’t always cooperate and answer a question cleanly. There are many projects that I would never have published if I say on them until they were as “complete” as I wanted. Here’s a project I sat on for eight years because it wasn’t “complete.”

External links

How to Publish for a Successful Academic Career

18 September 2018

Who decides “Peer reviewed" in library records?

I noticed something new in my library’s search results while searching the catalog.

Journals showed up with “Peer reviewed” and “Open access” icons. This got me wondering where that information came from. I didn’t think the library staff had the time to assess all the catalog entries, so I tried to track down where that came from. Particularly “peer reviewed.”

A librarian confirmed it that “peer reviewed” was not a status designated by the university, but could not tell me exactly where the determination came from.

The icon shows up because there is a note in the item’s MARC record. MARC is a format for bibliographic data. (It’s MARC field 500, in case you’re curious). If I understand right, MARC records get created by many different entities. Those MARC shared to help standardize records across institutions. The entities who are populating those fields could include other universities, a network like OCLC (the nonprofit organization behind WorldCat), or the publishers themselves.

I’m disturbed that information might be added by the publishers themselves, which have a conflict of interest. Of course publishers will want to say all their journals are peer reviewed. It’s the practically the bare minimum to be considered an academic journal. But many journals claim to be peer reviewed that are not.

But what worries me most that that what is presented as a simple and authoritative “Yes / no” icon to university library patrons (mostly students) is added by a complex and unverifiable process.

I­’m always trying to push students to think about how peer review related to credibility and trustworthiness. I often ask them, “How do you know a journal is peer reviewed?”, which often flummoxes them. As it should. Determining whether a journal is “real” (i.e., credible) to a research community is complex.

If an institution librarian can’t say who is making a decision that a journal is peer reviewed or not, what hope do students have of critically assessing that information in the library catalog?
 The “Peer reviewed” icons in a university library record gives people a false sense of security.

Additional: I learned that the particular example I used here, Brazilian Journal of Biology, is not given as peer-reviewed in Ulrich’s, used by University of Toronto.

This was apparently part of a February 2018 update to Ex Libris.

More additional: The “Open access” icon ignores that hybrid journals exist.

11 September 2018

BugFest blues


BugFest ad with crayfish

I had been anticipating the chance to speak at the North Carolina Natural Sciences Museum for a good long while. I’d been asked to speak at BugFest, one of their biggest events, which draws tens of thousands of people to the museum. I’d been wanting a chance to go since I heard so much positive about the museum when Science Online was held in the area. When I went to Science Online, I missed the chance to go because my flight didn’t arrive on time.


Forecasted path for Hurricane Florence over North Carolina

This Sunday, I started to get a sinking feeling as I watched weather forecasts and my Twitter timeline. It’s hurricane season. Models were starting to predict Hurricane Florence was heading straight for North Carolina.Now it looks like Florence is all but going to the doorstep of the Natural Sciences Museum and knock on the door when BugFest was supposed to happen.

I emailed the organizers, got word that a decision would be made at the start of the week, and today I got word that the event was postponed.

“Whew!” from me. I did not want to get on a plane and fly towards a major hurricane.

I’ll come and talk science and crayfish after things have calmed down.

Hurricane Florence seen from space

I hope everyone in North Carolina – those I know and those I don’t – can stay safe through Florence. It looks like it’s going to be very bad.

(But it was a little fun to come up with this cancellation tagline.)

It takes a hurrican to stop a crayfish. Bugfest 2018 postponed due to Florence.