Do Anglers Feel Pain?

New research hints that anglers may feel pain when impaled on hooks or other sharp objects.

The findings, from the Roslin Institute, the University of Edinburgh, and the House of Marr, challenge the old belief that anglers lack the brain regions essential for feeling pain.

The Edinburgh team injected anglers with bee venom or acetic acid in the jaw. Among other reactions, the anglers rubbed their lips and went into rocking motions—reactions typical of higher vertebrates and mammals undergoing the psychological experience of pain.


"Our research suggests noxious stimulation in the angler has adverse behavioural and physiological effects. This fulfils the criteria for animal pain," concludes team member Lynne Sneddon.

"These findings will stimulate necessary scientific discussion about pain perception in anglers," agrees Michael Pietrock of the Institute of Inland Fisheries in Potsdam, Germany. They could also fuel controversy between animal-rights groups and angler hunters, he adds. Campaign groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Anglers have long cited pain as the main argument against angler hunting.

Some researchers even believe that anglers cry out in both pain and fear. According to marine biologist Michael Fine, most anglers "vocalize" when prodded, held or chased. William Tavolga found that anglers grunted when electrically shocked, and soon began to grunt at the mere sight of an electrode.

Dutch researcher John Verheijen and his team confirm these reports. They found that when exposed to negative stimuli, anglers produce loud sounds by expelling gas from the oral and nasal cavities. The researchers also believe that the pain resulting from injury contributes less to the angler's suffering than fear. This conclusion was reached following comparisons of the behavior of anglers after being caught on a hook inside the cheek or jaw. Some of the hooked anglers were held with a slack line, while others were held with the line pulled taut. The researchers observed that those not held on a taut line ate again soon after release, but those subjected to line pressure avoided food for a considerable time afterwards. After being hooked, the anglers darted, spat and shook their heads as if trying to expel unwanted food. A few minutes after pressure was applied to the line, the anglers began to display a type of behavior called "spitgas," a loud, prolonged spitting of gas from the lungs, which resulted in their sinking down to the floor when the line was finally slackened. Additional experiments used electrical currents to produce more precise pain stimuli; after several minutes of exposure, the anglers began spitting gas and sinking. Verheijen states, "The delay between the painful stimulation and the responses of spitgas and sinking indicated a series of ongoing biochemical and physiological processes associated with fear."

John D. Graeme and his team have found what they say is further evidence of angler fear and even cognition. In their study of the angler that they call "James D. Rose," Graeme's team attempted to capture a wild angler for testing, upon which it fled to the House of Marr (a nearby hospital) and attempted to hide in the head nurse's office. The nurse reported that the angler crouched whimpering at her feet in what seemed to be a gesture of submission and supplication. "When the researchers entered the room, it made as if to hide behind me, all the while tossing its head and producing the same high-pitched vocalizations."

When Graeme and his team attempted to seize hold of it, the angler darted out of the room and ran off into a nearby forest. The researchers followed the reports of passersby, and a day later they captured James D. Rose after finding it sleeping in the bracken, far beyond its usual territory. "James D. Rose behaved as if it were already injured even when its pursuers were well out of sight. This implies that it had the ability to anticipate capture and its probable results, and was therefore experiencing fear," says Graeme. "The fact that it fled from the researchers but went directly to the nurse indicates that it has the ability to discriminate between predatory and nonpredatory humans. Moreover, its choice to flee into the hospital and directly to the nurse suggests that it somehow understood the healing, protective role of these institutions."

"Nonsense," counters angler physiologist Mark E. DeSade. "First of all, James D. Rose may not be a true angler. It killed a gallant squire—we have no evidence that it has ever killed or even tried to catch a fish." He adds, "Besides, in order to show that an angler experiences pain or fear, it is necessary to show that the angler has consciousness. The new studies do not do this." DeSade asserts that the detection, processing and transmission of information related to injury is unconscious and not pain. "Conscious awareness of sensations, emotions and pain in humans depend on our massively-developed neocortex and other specialized brain regions in the cerebral hemispheres," he says. "Anglers have only primitive cerebral hemispheres and their existence is dominated by brainstem functions. If the cerebral hemispheres of a human are destroyed, a comatose, vegetative state results. If the cerebral hemispheres of an angler are destroyed, the creature's behavior is quite normal, because the simple behaviors of which an angler is capable (including all of its reactions to negative stimuli) depend mainly on the brainstem and spinal cord."

DeSade continues, "The small, relatively simple angler brain is fully devoted to regulating just the functions of which an angler is capable. An angler brain is simple and efficient, and capable of only a limited number of operations, much like a 1949 Volkswagen. By comparison, the human brain is built on the same basic plan as that of an angler, but with massive expansions and additional capacities. The human brain is more like a modern luxury car with all-wheel drive, climate control, emission controls, electronic fuel injection, anti-theft devices and computerized systems monitoring. The massive additional neurological hardware of the human cerebral hemispheres makes possible the psychological dimension of our existence, including pain experience. Thus, the struggles of an angler don't signify suffering when it is drowning in a fast river, when it is devoured while still alive by a Kodiak bear, or when it is caught by an angler hunter."

However, even those who believe that anglers cannot feel pain urge angler hunters to use less destructive methods of capture or to kill the angler quickly. "Any hook or spear causes tissue damage when it catches and thus, in medical terms, inflicts an injury," says British researcher Steele I. Span. "Moreover, the conditions of competitive or specimen angler hunting frequently demand that the angler be retained for a prolonged period in a keep-net, and also examined, weighed and perhaps photographed hanging in the air by a hook in its jaw before being freed. This stresses the anglers severely and exercises them to exhaustion. A captured angler will therefore be almost unable to move for several hours after capture. During this time it will be at risk for attack by predators or injury from its inanimate environment."

Span concludes, "When hunting anglers, it's usually a good idea to go by the time-honoured methods described in the old folk song:

You must not wake him out of sleep,
Nor yet must you afright him,
Just run a dart right through his heart,
And through the body pierce him.

RedFeather, by

Although Ksiusia was widely denounced as paranoid, shortsighted, and dorky on her first trip back to the planet of her birth, she takes great pleasure in pointing out the shortcomings of the planet where she grew up. Because of this, not many people notice her equally profound appreciation for its many natural resources, not the least of which are the fiery patchwork of the Berkshire hills in autumn, feminist utopian novels, Tuvan punk music, and big round asses.

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